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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN DIEGO BAY NWR:  FWS and Partners  Train During  Coordinated  Oil Spill Exercise

Region 8, February 29, 2012
Service employees and partners gather for a group picture.
Service employees and partners gather for a group picture. - Photo Credit: n/a
The yellow boom barrier was placed at the mouths of each wetland on the San Diego Bay NWR to practice protecting it from oil entering from the main Sweetwater River Channel.
The yellow boom barrier was placed at the mouths of each wetland on the San Diego Bay NWR to practice protecting it from oil entering from the main Sweetwater River Channel. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Lisa Cox, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex

“Being ready” is their job. In the case of an oil spill, that is. Federal and state agencies, and non-profit organizations, tested a number of strategies to deal accidental spills recently,in an ongoing effort to protect sensitive sites such as the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. 

Personnel from the U. S. Coast Guard (USCG), California Department of Fish & Game’s Office of Spill Prevention & Response (DFG-OSPR), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), met at Pepper Park in National City, California to observe and assess Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and National Response Corporation Environmental Services (NRCES) tested their equipment deployment strategy within the Sweetwater Flood Control Channel on February 29th.  The waterway splits two sensitive marsh areas of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge (SDBNWR): Paradise Marsh and the “D” Street Marsh.

The SDBNWR provides habitat for two federally endangered bird species, the California least tern and Light-footed clapper rail, a threatened species of bird, the Western snowy plover, and one endangered plant species, Salt marsh bird’s beak. The State endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow is also a resident bird on the refuge. None of these species were impacted during the exercise because the drill was conducted just before breeding season, and no land contact was made on either mudflat or marsh.

The strategy within the Sweetwater River Flood Control Channel was added into the plan in 2011 after a suggestion was made during the Area Committee’s sensitive site update working group. A significant amount of effort has been made to restore this area as a functional wetland for its native wildlife value.

How the boom works

About 800 feet of floating oil barrier boom in two sections parallel to each of the channel banks was temporarily installed (see map). These banks were very near the openings that feed the adjacent wetlands of the SDBNWR. Once the boom was anchored by personnel on small boat vessels, it was briefly left in place for only a few minutes to observe and evaluate the need for additional anchors or boom. This day, they found out that they would need additional boom on each side of the channel. In the event of a real oil spill, an additional boom that was extra absorbent would be installed on the side of the protected wetland to ensure capturing any drops of oil that may have escaped past the first boom.

This boom deployment is prescribed in the Oil Spill “Area Contingency Plan” (ACP). The group of agencies working together to create and maintain this ACP is the Area Committee. The primary role of the Area Committee is to act as preparedness and planning body to develop, maintain, and exercise ACPs. The ACP has prescribed this strategy within the channel to prevent injury to the surrounding habitat in the event of an oil spill, and is designed to protect the nearby sensitive habitats where the three federally listed species of birds and one listed plant may be found.

What is classified as a “Sensitive Area”?

“Sensitive areas include wildlife and habitat, and archeological resources. Coastal resources that are at risk from oil spills include biological resources (e.g., birds, fish, and shellfish, shoreline habitats, and human-resources (such as public beaches and parks)). These are also called Trust Resources. For example, under the Trusteeship of the USFWS as delegated by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, Trust Resources include migratory birds, species listed under the Endangered Species Act, certain marine mammals, anadromous fish, wetlands and USFWS lands. “Trust Resources such as these were at risk from the Gulf oil spill,” said Judy Gibson, Field Spill Response Coordinator for the FWS Carlsbad Ecological Services Office, who responded to the Gulf Oil spill.

How these agencies work together during an oil spill

The USCG is the federal response agency for marine oil spills, while the US EPA responds to spills on land. The OSPR is the lead state agency for all oil spills in California, who coordinate with all other agencies. The USCG will normally consult with USFWS to ensure that the intent of Section 7(a)(1) of the Endangered Species Act is met, to protect both endangered species and any designated critical habitat from any injuries. For example, during a marine oil spill response here in the Sweetwater River channel, the Unified Command is made up of the USCG-Sector San Diego, OSPR, and a representative of the responsible party for the spill. By law, the responsible party participates in the Unified Command, and helps direct and pay for the spill response.


How long would it take for the response team to arrive on-site?

There are many stations set up throughout the state in order to provide efficient service in the event of an emergency. The nearest equipment location to the Sweetwater River is located near downtown San Diego, and is managed by the MSRC. Jeff Jappe, Area Response Manager for MSRC, said the time it would take for the equipment and staff to be on-scene would be approximately 45 minutes during business hours, and during non-business hours perhaps an hour and 15 minutes.

What about wildlife that may get oiled during a spill?

During a spill, only personnel from organizations who have been certified by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) are allowed to handle wild animals that have been oiled. Volunteers are also utilized, but must be trained and coordinated through the OWCN. Kris Wiese, Environmental Scientist for OSPR, said “If it’s a long-term care issue with many animals that need help, the OWCN would be contacted and asked to set up at the site. If it’s a smaller spill, the birds would be taken right to Sea World.”

What happens next for oil spill preparedness in the San Diego Bay?

Wiese said the tentative schedule for 2012 includes the protection strategy at the mouth of the Otay River, on the South San Diego Bay Unit of the San Diego Bay NWR. With the new salt pond restoration project finished, and additional breaches in the levees of the former western salt ponds, additional boom will need to be set up to protect the newly restored ponds.


For more information:

http://www.dfg.ca.gov/ospr/

http://www.owcn.org/

http://www.msrc.org/

http://www.uscg.mil/

Contact Info: Lisa Cox, 619.476.9150 ext. 106, lisa_cox@fws.gov