Beach dredging approved

San Diego City Council sided with people over pinnipeds voting 5-3 in favor of a controversial proposal to remove 3,000 cubic yards of sand at Children's Pool in an attempt to achieve shared use between humans and seals.

Councilmembers Donna Frye, Toni Atkins and Michael Zucchet opposed a motion by First District's Scott Peters to launch the dredging project. Siding with Peters were Mayor Dick Murphy and councilmembers Jim Madaffer, Ralph Inzunza and Brian Mainschein.

The late councilman Charles Lewis, whose seat is presently vacant, had previously voted in favor of maintaining the status quo at Children's Pool.

Peters' motion was to approve the city manager's recommendation, including removing rope barriers at Children's Pool separating seals from humans, as well as moving signage now on the beach over to the lifeguard tower.

"I also want to ask that opening the sluiceways in the breakwater at Children's Pool be evaluated as an alternative method to achieve sand removal and tidal flushing," said Peters. "The signs are to be placed on the lifeguard tower saying public access is permitted, but that seal harassment is a violation, and warning that bacterial levels are high subject to testing of the area."

Peters also moved that an account be created to begin collecting funds for the dredging project, most of which he said would come from private donations.

Removing 3,000 cubic yards of sand at Children's Pool would initially cost $250,000 to $500,000, with an annual estimated testing fee of $3,000. It has also been proposed that a full-time ranger be hired at an annual salary of $75,000 to police the area.

Children's Pool beach is an artificial cove protected by a concrete breakwater. The sea wall was built in 1931 with $60,000 donated by La Jolla matriarch Ellen Browning Scripps to provide a sheltered swimming area for children.

Sometime in the early 1990s, harbor seals began to haul out on the beach to rest and nurse their young. The seal colony has since become a tourist attraction that is monitored informally by La Jolla Friends of the Seals, a volunteer group running a docent program.

The pool was closed to the public in September 1997 because of high bacteria counts from accumulated seal waste. In 2001, county Environmental Health reversed its position - in response to changes in state policies, not changes in water quality counts - and removed the bathing prohibition, replacing it with an advisory to swimmers to enter the water at their own risk.

Seal numbers at Children's Pool have been estimated at between 160 and 200 during peak times.

There was discussion of the shared-use plan for Children's Pool being a seasonal one, with humans being allowed beach access from July 1 to Jan. 1, when seals on the beach are fewer, and seals holding sway from Jan. 1 to July 1 during their pupping season.

Early in the discussion, the council meeting took on a courtroom character as Peters queried Jim Lecky, assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, as to what actually is and is not allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That's the federal law protecting harbor seals and other marine mammals from harassment.

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