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Why do we keep building in Mission Valley?

San Diego’s flood central

San Diego River flows over Avenida Del Rio in 2010. Typically, Mission Valley flooding is more of a traffic hassle than an aquatic apocalypse.
  • San Diego River flows over Avenida Del Rio in 2010. Typically, Mission Valley flooding is more of a traffic hassle than an aquatic apocalypse.
  • Photograph by Chris Woo

I’m thinking that this parking lot, when it’s submerged under three feet of storm runoff, will make a great place for pick-up truck water skiing, drunken community college guys on boogie boards, and trash can lids spraying up fantails past Macy’s and Target as middle-aged women look on in horror from their stranded minivans. It’s Mission Valley, and it’s flood time in the flood plain, the latter being merely a fancy tag attached by earth science types to places we shouldn’t build shit but do anyway.

Fashion Valley, winter 2010, after the San Diego River overflowed its banks.

Fashion Valley, winter 2010, after the San Diego River overflowed its banks.

Photograph by Chris Woo

It’s only December 5, and the turkey’s just been digested, but we’re already getting warmed up for what may turn out to be a season of slippin’ and slidin’ down in the valley. If the rain gods’ latest contributions prove halfway prophetic, this winter in the heart of San Diego could be a real humdinger. Today, it turns out that the heavy action is in coastal North County; the soggiest sagas so far are emanating from Oceanside. There’s no YouTube video yet of shivering, quivering folks on car roofs on some Camino Del Rio, and no images of friendly firefighters cradling kittens next to a homeless encampment. But the storm’s vigorous enough to entice locals to take advantage of a mildly roiling San Diego River. Channel 10 News reports, “Two kayakers chose to take advantage of the rising water levels. They were caught on camera… moving their kayak over a dry spot of the San Diego River in Mission Valley.”

For those whose shopping trips to the mall or lunchtime jaunts from their cliffside office buildings are transmogrified to inadvertent water park excursions, a Mission Valley flood plain “event” isn’t viewed as a water sports opportunity. But as chronicled in the dozens of still images that Google preserves online, it’s comical in a perverse sense, and one way to get a handle on the scope of flooding is to peruse the library of aerial shots taken over the decades.

National Weather Service meteorologist Philip Gonsalves explains that when the San Diego River reaches “monitor stage”— 7.5 feet as it passes Fashion Valley — “the city and various agencies start to devote resources to [dealing with] potential flooding.” “Flood stage” occurs at 11.3 feet.

National Weather Service meteorologist Philip Gonsalves explains that when the San Diego River reaches “monitor stage”— 7.5 feet as it passes Fashion Valley — “the city and various agencies start to devote resources to [dealing with] potential flooding.” “Flood stage” occurs at 11.3 feet.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

When the valley was fertile fields, copacetic for cud-chomping milk machines, it rained now and then, but our founding farmers said, ‘Ain’t no thang.’ When cow annualpastures turned to concrete culverts and sod to hardscape, after bosky barns had been bulldozed to make way for convention centers, the terrain that had held the moisture in check could no longer handle it with aplomb, and it still rains now and then.

Visual impacts aside, the sodden history of the gnarly nimbostratus in Mission Valley is well-documented. It’s not that precipitation is markedly greater in Mission Valley than in other areas of San Diego County; indeed, it’s a desiccated valley of bones when compared with, say, Mount Laguna.

(The National Weather Service, Lindbergh Field, the official site for San Diego (City), records an annual average of 10.13 inches of rain. By contrast, Mount Laguna comes in at 23 inches of rain and 11 inches of snow. Palomar Mountain tops the County list with an annual average of 30.19 inches of rain and 26 inches of snow.)

This is what happens when you build a mall too close to a river. Fashion Valley parking structure 2010.

This is what happens when you build a mall too close to a river. Fashion Valley parking structure 2010.

Photograph by Chris Woo

There’s nothing in our meteorological annals that points to some sort of cloudburst conspiracy. But what other locales take in stride, denizens of the Valley take with soggy burlap bags, floating SUVs, and the embarrassing occasional rescue. No tsunamis here, but a humongous mess, one which seems to have been preventable — if only San Diegans could have laid off laying down copious quantities of asphalt and concrete in a place that attracts water the way a trailer park attracts twisters.

Certain years stand out as literal high water marks, 2010 and 2016 most recently, as reflected by the National Weather Service’s official gauge ‘FSNC1,’ situated near the Fashion Valley. To the [feigned] shock of no one but histrionic TV weather-gals in pancake makeup and short skirts, the annual soaking of this big commercial ditch of has-been hotels and standard-fare chain stores is hardly an aquatic apocalypse. Any given spring or summer, San Diegans can watch live video feeds from Mississippi River towns where another “100 year flood” is in progress for the third straight year, with farmers and townsfolk alike clinging to rooftops awaiting Jesus and the National Guard. And here in the normally sere surroundings, we chatter amongst ourselves and shout back at the computer screen, “Why the hell do they keep re-building next to the river?”

The River doesn’t care what you build; it just rolls on, in spare or frenetic fashion, according to the largesse of the nimbostratus nation, and sometimes we say that it’s exceeded its customary boundaries. But what exactly, in riverine terms, do we mean by a “flood?” For that answer, I turned to the National Weather Service’s local office, where affable meteorologist Philip Gonsalves directed me to the website of the California Nevada River Forecast Center which chronicles, by dint of graphs and charts, the behavior of the states’ rivers.

Along the banks of the occasionally mighty San Diego, in back of Fashion Valley Road, there’s a little wooden shed, painted a cheerful red but burnished to brown, that resembles an outhouse, sans the crescent moon on the door. Officially termed a ‘gauge house,’ it hosts the readings that now and then cause professional water-watchers to sound the klaxon. Online, the River Forecast Center’s graph plots the rise and fall of the San Diego River’s levels, both current and historical, along with flow data measured in cubic feet per second and other indicia of watery woes. There are two prominent horizontal lines on the graph, one at 11.3 feet marked ‘flood stage’ and another at 7.5 feet, the ‘monitor stage.’ As Gonsalves explains, the ‘stage’ is the thing: “When it reaches the monitor stage, that’s when the City and various agencies start to devote resources to [dealing with] potential flooding.”

Looking at the graph, it’s easy to see just how quickly our typically placid waterway reacts to being dumped on — and just how eagerly it recedes once the skies clear. In October and November, most days were flat lines of 1.8 feet or so, but from the morning of Wednesday, December 5 to late the next day, the river rose to over 12 feet, but backed off to sub-monitor territory by Friday, and within a few days, had approached 3 feet. To gain a sense of perspective, on December 22, 2010, when Qualcomm Stadium flooded, the river reached 14.01 feet.

To get the City of San Diego’s input, I spoke with Anthony Santacroce, who serves as a public information representative for the City of San Diego’s Transportation & Storm Water Department. Wary from the get-go, he eschewed a phone interview in favor of an email exchange, the process preferred by the shapers and shifters charged with manning the gates of public entities. Answers were slow in coming and rather spotty in coverage. Santacroce was, to say the least, guarded in his responses to my queries. Noting my full-time occupation as an attorney [notwithstanding my role as a transactional specialist — not a litigator], he was spooked. “I heard your answering machine message at your law office, and I’m uncomfortable with your line of questioning; you seem to be getting at a lot of liability.”

I’d asked Santacroce a number of specific questions regarding the City’s assessment of the risk and measures being taken to address it — had the City identified the most vulnerable locations in the Valley or constructed a worst-case model; and what about the pattern of on-going commercial and residential development in a proven flood plain, or notable floods in the recent past?

What I received in response was a broad, City-wide executive summary of sorts, “Storm Water Channel Maintenance Program Prioritization and Annual Update,” along with a press release sent in anticipation of the imminent storm. The latter urged residents to “sweep and pick up trash, leaves, grass clippings and other debris that collects around the storm drains and curb gutters… and keep the lid securely closed on trash and recycle bins.” The release also announced that the City would be “placing ‘no parking signs’ in low-lying areas.”

And what civic communique would be complete without heretofore hidden advice for the perplexed? “Know the safest route to and from your home or property should flooding occur. Slow down and do not drive, ride, or walk through flood waters.”

However, notwithstanding any reticence it displays when responding to questions, the City is only moderately niggardly when it comes to handing out free sandbags. “Sandbags,” noted the release, “are in limited supply and those presenting proof of residency can get up to 10 empty sandbags. Residents [must] offer identification showing their home street address.”

As for addresses? Santacroce never once mentioned Mission Valley, nor did he address the concept of, say, Mission Beach or La Jolla Shores as supply sources to fill those bags.

No one in San Diego is shocked when these pastures-gone-concrete fall fast and hard to our version of inclement weather, and the City’s little yellow signs are given short shrift by most. No shit, Shamu — Mission Valley floods like a carburetor on an old Chevy that won’t start. Even among the local designees of national, conglomerate media, the City’s droll (if unintended) sense of humor strikes a note, if not a chord. Looking at a sign in Mission Valley that reads “Road May Flood,” one reporter quipped, “I’d say that sign is pretty accurate. Another commenter opined, “In terms of flooding today, I have two words for you: Mission Valley!”

I placed several calls to the Army Corps of Engineers’ local (Carlsbad) office but received no response. Perhaps they were reviewing their flood plain contingencies.

In an effort to inject a bit of academic perspective to the self-evident “why” behind Mission Valley flooding, I first contacted Scripps Institute of Oceanography. They directed me to UCSD’s J.B. Hinds (in the urban studies and planning program), who in turn, heartily recommended Dr. Victor Ponce at San Diego State. Ponce, an apparently renowned and esteemed member of the engineering faculty, and author of such tomes as Engineering Hydrology: Principles and Practices, answered the phone when I called. But like a sluice opened too quickly, it was all downhill from there. I asked if he might have a minute to chat.

“No!”

“Well,” I responded, “Is it safe to say that topography and development play important roles in Mission Valley flooding?”

He snarled, “No! — Goodbye!”

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Comments

That flooded section of parking lot and the adjacent dip crossing where the river flows across the road heading west has been doing that for decades without much problem: when it gets too wet they put up some "road closed" signs, open the fence on the downstream side of the road, and it's good to go. No one's house is flooded, the shopping mall itself stays dry, but every time it rains too much, the TV news operations have to send someone down to Fashion Valley to report on this - it helps if they send a cub reporter who doesn't know it's no big deal.

Not so "good to go:" I thought some fancy cars were ruined in those watery garages built in the Mission Valley flood plain.

This is a pretty funny story, especially the nervous-nelly hydrologists who wouldn't talk to the reporter. I would like to add that City Water Guy Anthony Santacroce is aptly named: there is a low-lying medieval Franciscan church in Florence, Italy, called Basilica di Santa Croce, which was disastrously flooded in 1968 by the nearby Arno River and required international emergency intervention to save interior art and architecture.

Not to nitpick, but the flood was in 1966. The only reason I know this is because the last trip to Europe my wife and I took before her illness made it too difficult to travel was in 2006. We were in Italy for a while and spent some time in my wife's favorite city there, Florence. Preparations were underway for a remembrance on the 40th anniversary of the food, the day of which happens to be in between my and my wife's birthdays. If somebody had asked me what the odds were that I would ever have occasion to comment anywhere about a flood in a church 50 + years ago in a city in Italy that my wife and I visited a few times, I would have said about a gazillion to 1. Go figure. Maybe I should play the lotto on Saturday.

No worries, lovely story. Thanks for sharing. Definitely play the lotto in case the serendipity is still working.

Why do we keep building in Mission Valley? Because you can't fix stupid.

Location Location Location, and as Bob pointed out, there isn't any damage to actual homes, businesses etc. Just parking garages and anyone not savvy about avoiding the area during storms and/or Christmas... If you bought there, well, I would say fire your realtor but they already got over on you.

On another note, who uses the word niggardly in 2019???

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