In the closing hours of an earth-spin, we sometimes want more than another round of sheetrock rooms, perfect-density pile carpets, and matching furniture. And so many of us, in the evenings, go to the edge of somewhere to look out. Emily Carr, the Canadian artist, confessing her passion for earth, once gushed, I want “her volume.” We can relate. There is a kind of universal ache for supersized outdoors. There is an eye-hunger for distance and a soul lust for things far off. Stirring inside, we need and want to get up and go see something with the lid off, something unwalled, an urban-rural fringe, and a tattered edge of something undeveloped, a mud acre or two, a blue-sparkled stretch of water.
And so, on a Saturday night last summer, my wife and I broke the spell of the house — the big soft chairs, the flashing TV, and the too-frequent trips to the refrigerator. We fled the place with marine equipment and parked our car at J Street Marina on the San Diego Bay. We had come out to see it.
We off-loaded our sit-on-top kayak, paddled past the parked sailboats and yachts, slipped out of the marina, and forced our way into San Diego Bay with two hours of sunlight left. Once you’ve made the choice, the rest just flows. Or does it?
The wind was still blowing from the Pacific Ocean across the Silver Strand and into the bay, and we had to make the choice again. Sit and go backwards or paddle hard. We paddled into the stiff breeze, slicing through choppy waves. Midbay we realized that we didn’t have to be this far out to get to our destination: the humming power plant looming at the edge of the city of Chula Vista.
The tide was high; it was a straight shot to the power plant. We turned toward it. Glancing up from paddling, I could see the old plant ahead in all its latticed, ducted, and smoke-stacked glory. It looked weirdly out of place, like a giant still, sitting at the edge of a mudflat scattered with willets and marbled godwits. This huge, old metal monstrosity with nearby storage containers sits in stark contrast to the 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge just a few miles to the north. There cordgrass, snowy egrets, and endangered light-footed clapper rails feed in the mudflats. A nature center sits near the end of the point, with a beautiful array of aquariums, shark and ray petting pools, and a variety of bird exhibits.
But the salt marsh isn’t pristine; it has its own industrial past. At the beginning of World War I, the Hercules Powder Company opened a factory where the nature interpretive center now sits and extracted acetone from kelp to make cordite, an explosive used by the British. This area is used to abuse. Old, abandoned railroad tracks still cross the marsh on a route that at one time circled the southern end of the bay. For a number of years, the uplands, just south of the Sweetwater Marsh, were a de facto dump.
As we paddled toward the power plant, I could see that at 50, it was oxidized, rusted, and wheezed faint white smoke. The Port of San Diego, which owns the plant and the 160 acres on which it sits, leases it to Dynegy, a Houston-based power producer. The San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that, among other things, it leaks chlorine and copper. The California Independent System Operator, which regulates the power grid here, has long resisted efforts to shut the plant down, arguing that it has been needed as a backup source of electricity. But just this October, under pressure from activists and politicians, the state agency decided that the plant isn’t needed. Dynegy spokesman David Byford is now saying, “Our operations will cease at the end of the year.” That will be none too soon for the creatures that make this area their home.
In the summer of 2009, a man in San Diego pleaded guilty to dumping concrete, paint, and rust into the bay to avoid disposal costs while repairing a boat in 2006. He was arrested in Malta and extradited to the United States. Justice has been done: the law enforced, reaching even to offenders far off. But offenders nearby, such as the power plant, have long been overlooked. In 2006, Michael Foster, coauthor of a California Energy Commission report and a marine biologist in Moss Landing, estimated that California’s 21 coastal power plants kill up to 50 million small fish and larvae per day.
Reflecting on the Chula Vista power plant, Jim Peugh of the Audubon Society has said, “I know a lot of herons that would sue if they could.” And not just the herons; the mudsuckers living in the bay could easily win a class-action suit. The old metal beast’s once-through cooling system can suck in millions of gallons of water a day and send it back out as much as 20 degrees hotter. The wee creatures of the bay could have argued before the bench that once-through was one time too many.
But this evening, out on the bay, was free of litigation or spectators. A few fast-flying elegant terns whizzed overhead. The tourists who crowd to SeaWorld and the zoo miss this one. Over 200,000 people live in the city of Chula Vista, more than 3 million in San Diego County, but the south end of San Diego Bay was virtually empty. Nothing new here; this area has been relatively devoid of tourists for years. The boats that motor or sail out of the J Street Marina typically head north toward Coronado’s beautiful Glorietta Bay or under the graceful curve of the Coronado Bay Bridge and out along the edge of Point Loma where the bay opens to the ocean.
The dying wind blew softly with us now. We arm-powered toward the oozing, rusting industrial relic with high expectation. Then we stopped paddling and drifted — alone.
Why motor, sail, or paddle south? The whole of the South Bay is largely industrial. North of the South Bay Power Plant sits Goodrich Aerostructures, ensconced in spaces formerly occupied by Rohr Industries. In 1940, Rohr, an aircraft-manufacturing company, put up a 37,500-square-foot warehouse on the Chula Vista bayfront, eventually expanding to 600,000 square feet. In 1997, Rohr, Inc., became a subsidiary of the BFGoodrich Company. Its big square buildings, some new and glassy, and its huge, abandoned, cracked, and weed-infested parking lots, while set back, still define this part of the bay.