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Irrigation could be cause of landslide

With city officials and homeowners continuing to pick up the pieces in the wake of the Oct. 3 Soledad Mountain Road landslide, a local land-use consultant warned there are other potential slide areas in the Jewel.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but this (Mt. Soledad) is not one of the worst (slide) areas,” said Michael Pallamary of Pallamary and Associates at 7755 Fay Ave., Suite J. “Not to minimize or diminish the Soledad slide, but if we had a significant tremor, there will be a lot more hills and roads falling down. The point is, are we well-prepared to deal with that?”

As a land-use consultant, Pallamary said he’s privy to a great deal of documented, topographical information indicating where slides have occurred, and where they have the potential to occur in the future.

“You don’t need to be a geologist, a surveyor or an engineer to be able to pick out where (landslide) fill areas are,” he said. “What happened on the Soledad slide is you had inferior construction technology dating back 40, 50 years. If you had had contemporary technology, that certainly wouldn’t have happened. What happened was the (construction) materials weren’t properly mated to the hillside.”

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At least two lawsuits have already been filed by Mt. Soledad homeowners alleging the city is responsible for the failure of the hillside because the catastrophe was caused by leaky city water pipes that soaked and loosened the soil until it gave way.

Pallamary said he thinks there is another reason why soil in the area was loosened, which ultimately led to the landslide: People in the area overirrigating their lawns.

“You have to remember we live in a desert, and San Diego only gets an average of nine inches of rain a year,” Pallamary said. “Yet people with beautiful homes want emerald-green lawns. So they continue to introduce large volumes of water into the hills and soil that was never intended to accept such large volumes of water. Estimates are some irrigation systems put the equivalent of 100 inches of rainfall a year into someone’s backyard. That’s 10 or 11 times what is normal.”

J.R. Sullivan, president of La Jolla Real Estate Broker’s Association (REBA), said laws are in place for properties located in earthquake fault zones, like Mount Soledad, requiring proper disclosure of that fact to buyers and sellers there. “The way that happens is there’s a federally mandated disclosure, called a Natural Hazard Zone Disclosure Report,” said Sullivan. “That is a thick booklet that tells all the known zones houses are in.”

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There are a multitude of zoning issues homeowners need to be concerned about. Said Sullivan: “Your property may be zoned for natural habitat, or for a particular type of (endangered) frog.”

In the landslide’s aftermath, swords continue to be crossed between City Attorney Michael Aguirre and Mayor Jerry Sanders over statements made by Aguirre following the tragic event.

Because Aguirre hosted two forums with La Jolla residents at which he allegedly speculated about what led to the landslide, Sanders is seeking to remove Aguirre from representing San Diego on the La Jolla landslide. Aguirre’s critics said his forums could cause a conflict of interest if the city attorney were to represent San Diego in litigation filed by homeowners.

In response, Aguirre has charged that the mayor’s office is “politicizing the tragedy” by misrepresenting statements he made at the landslide scene. At that time, Aguirre said he called for facts to be gathered to determine whether or not a series of water leaks caused or contributed to the landslide.

“The mayor’s political spin machine purposely made me the target of this tragedy in an attempt to provide cover for the mayor’s lack of leadership in addressing leaking water pipes in the Mt. Soledad area that his office had known about for three months,” said Aguirre in an Oct. 10 press release. “My position has always been to gather the facts and provide those facts to the public.”

Also on Oct. 10, Aguirre requested the mayor’s office to publicly release documents related to the city’s response to water leaks in the Mt. Soledad area.

The mayor’s office subsequently released public documents related to events preceding the Soledad landslide. Released documents cover July 18, 2007 through the present. Sanders’ office noted that, while not complete, the documents provide a snap-shot of how the city responded to the concerns of homeowners about soil movement and utility separations in the Mt. Soledad area.

Released documents reveal:

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  • With assistance from the City Attorney’s Office, a letter to homeowners on Soledad Mountain Road was hand-delivered on Sept. 19 advising them of the city’s plan to highline the water service.
  • On Sept. 20, the city began installation of a temporary, high-line water pipeline system on Mt. Soledad. 
  • By Sept. 30, city staff observed that cracks in Soledad Mountain Road had widened. That same day, a leaking fire hydrant was reported, which was repaired on Oct. 1. 
  • At approximately 8:50 a.m. on October 3, the landslide began.
  • Private Geotech Consultants begin drilling and sampling on site

Private geotechnical consultants began work Monday, Oct. 15. Initial work includes drilling and sampling at the head of the landslide area on Soledad Mountain Road. This work will continue throughout this week.

  • Governor visits site

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly visited the site at 1 p.m., Oct. 15 following a planned event in San Diego County. He visited the head of the slide area on Soledad Mountain Road and was given an overview of the landslide by City Chief Geologist Rob Hawk. The City is submitting requests for state and federal aid through the Governor’s Office.

  • Status of affected homes

Six homes remain with red tag status. The City is working with these homeowners to retrieve their belongings from the homes, which remain unsafe for occupancy. Seven homes remain with yellow-tag status. Six homes now have “green tag” status because they have no street access. These homes are on the Desert View Drive alley and access to them is blocked by the landslide. These residents are able to enter their homes.

  • Information for residents

Information is available on the City’s Web page at www.sandiego.gov.
Trash collection service will be provided for residents in the area using smaller collection vehicles.