SAN DIEGO — Depending upon whom you ask, the odor that has plagued La Jolla Cove has been “putrid,” “noxious” or “like the East River used to smell,” for quite a while. Nose-pinching is commonplace.
Now, however, the stench of bird guano emanating from the cliffs in the tony seaside neighborhood has become, officially speaking, a public-health emergency.
“Cormorants, gulls, pigeons, pelicans and other animals have fouled the area,” San Diego Mayor Bob Filner wrote last month in a memo, declaring a state of emergency. “Physical disease and discomfort may result to humans if emergency action is not taken.”
City officials believe they at last have a solution: guano-eating bacteria. And so, each morning last week, workers lowered themselves onto the rocks with ropes and applied a solution made up of seven kinds of bacteria that digest animal feces.
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Previous plans to clean the rocks had been stymied by a morass of state and federal regulations protecting the environmentally sensitive stretch of coastline in northern San Diego, where seals, sea lions, scuba divers, swimmers, tourists, former presidential candidates and the panoply of birds congregate. The cove is home to some of the area’s finest restaurants and most expensive homes.
The bacterial solution, city officials insisted, would not run off into the ocean. As a result, the city could forgo the lengthy permit process that would have been required to power-wash the cliffs.
Standing near the workers Wednesday, Antonette Gutierrez, a senior biologist with Merkel & Associates, kept an eye on the birds and sea mammals to make sure they were not disturbed. Several times during the week, work was stopped when the wind picked up, to make sure the bacterial foam did not blow into the ocean. Rain would theoretically also halt work for the day (theoretically — this is Southern California).
“We don’t want to disrupt the nesting birds tending to their chicks,” Gutierrez said. “As far as the seals and the sea lions, we’re just monitoring them to make sure if there’s any aggression — really toward us — that we just back away.”
After a few days, business owners said they had noticed an improvement in the odor. On the section of cliff that had been cleaned, the brown rock — for years covered with the growing layer of white guano — is again visible.
Megan Heine, owner of the Brockton Villa restaurant, feared for her business last summer. Now, she said, the restaurant’s patio, which offers views of the ocean, no longer smells of wildlife.
“We’re thrilled,” she said. “I’m surprised how quickly it’s working. We’re just hoping the effect will last.”
Several diners at Brockton Villa agreed some odor had dissipated. A group of children in summer camp, who walked by covering their noses with their shirts, apparently did not.
The bacteria spraying will continue this week and resume in July or August, once nesting gulls and cormorants have moved on from another section of rocks where the guano is thickest.
The cliff cleaning will cost the city about $50,000 but will keep tourists flooding into La Jolla’s art galleries, restaurants and hotels, officials said. The mayor has indicated he will repeat the process if the stench lingers.
Darla Chamberlain goes snorkeling in La Jolla Cove a couple of times a week. Since the cliffs were closed to visitors several years ago, the wildlife had taken over.
“It’s wonderful that the wildlife is back,” she said. “It shows we’re taking better care of the environment. And part of that is the animals leave waste.”
But Bradley Wood, 74, who has lived in La Jolla for four decades, said it was important to make sure humans still wanted to visit, too.
“I’m somewhat of a tree hugger, but not when it comes to everything,” he said. He said he supported the mayor’s “strong-arm tactics,” at least in this case.
“It doesn’t smell as bad to me right here,” Wood said, standing above the area that had been cleaned that morning. As he walked along the edge of the cliff, he stopped and sniffed. “Oh, there it is! You catch that? Doesn’t smell like it’s improved a lot right here.”