Byline: Taylor Hill
SAN DIEGO — Mission Bay Yacht Club’s regular Fourth of July celebration won’t be as explosive as usual, as the normal fireworks show that accompanies the party has been canceled this year.
“This year, we’re just not getting a lot of community support, and we felt like having the show was not going to be very cost-effective,” said Jason Proctor, Mission Bay YC manager.
The pyrotechnics display has been held off the club’s docks for more than 20 years, funded primarily by donations from club members. But the increasing costs of environmental permits for fireworks shows, along with decreasing community support, may signal the end of an era in Mission Bay.
Sam Bruggemah of Pyro Spectaculars — the company that puts on the show for Mission Bay YC — said that the increasing pressure from environmental and water quality agencies has left smaller show operators with few options for putting on a celebration with fireworks.
Bruggemah said the cost of a show at Mission Bay YC ran around $26,000, including an extra $2,000 paid for water quality testing mandated by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2010.
The cancellation of the yacht club’s show means Mission Bay will be down to one fireworks show at SeaWorld on Independence Day.
“The water people have succeeded in chasing some of the smaller accounts away,” Bruggemah said. “The impact these shows have isn’t as bad as the impact of not having these shows — of not celebrating Independence Day.”
“We don’t want to cancel any future shows,” Proctor said. He is now focusing his efforts toward next year’s Fourth of July celebration. “We want to get our fundraising going pretty soon after this July 4, and try to get support from other local business.”
While Mission Bay’s fireworks cancellation was primarily based on a lack of funding, the increasing pressure and costs show organizers face in getting permits for pyrotechnics displays has led some to question the future of waterfront fireworks shows in San Diego County.
After Assemblywoman Diane Harkey’s California Assembly Bill 206 — which aimed to exempt fireworks shows from both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Californian Coastal Act — was voted down in April 2011, Sen. Juan Vargas of San Diego began to push for passage of California Senate Bill 973 to protect local shows.
Like AB 206, SB 973 would exempt fireworks from more stringent environmental action, but it also aimed to include special events such as concerts, parades and charity walks.
“CEQA was not created to allow frivolous lawsuits to ban family and charitable events like parades and fireworks on the Fourth of July,” Vargas said. “CEQA was passed to ensure that California’s environmental resources are protected, and we must uphold its original intent while protecting important events like community fireworks.”
But after being amended in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee April 23, the bill has been revised to only include fireworks, not expanding to cover other events.
Attorney Marco Gonzalez, who has been representing Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) — the group that has challenged fireworks shows at La Jolla and Lake Murray — said that the bill has been so watered down already, that even if passed, it won’t help fireworks shows.
“Even if approved, it won’t actually result in any change to the law,” Gonzalez said. “What the bill would do now is provide for some clarification that an existing exemption could be used for fireworks, and frankly, we’ve always said that that particular exemption could be applied to fireworks.”
The exemption is the Coastal Development Permit application that all fireworks show producers must currently submit. Once the fee is paid, the fireworks show is exempted from the CEQA process.
But the exemption that is currently in place requires fireworks show producers to show that no negative environmental impact will occur due to the show — a task Gonzalez said will be hard for show organizers to prove.
“We’re very confident that the science supports our assertion that fireworks shows over water and sensitive areas do have an environmental impact, and therefore any city that tries to use that exemption will be potentially challenged and an exception to the exemption raised,” Gonzalez said.
On San Diego Bay, Sandy Purdon, executive producer of the Port of San Diego’s Big Bay Boom fireworks show, is preparing for another year of spectacular fireworks shot from four different barges within the bay.
While SB 973 doesn’t affect the Big Bay Boom show (the barges are located on federal waterways requiring permits from the Coast Guard), they must adhere to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board’s National Pollutant Discharge Environmental Systems (NPDES) permit requirements, which include a list of best management practices to be followed, strict cleanup responsibilities, fireworks organization on the barges and assurance from the Department of Fish and Game and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Services that no barge is within 1 mile of any endangered least tern habitat.
“We seem to be checking all of the boxes for the environmental questions and applications, and we’re doing everything we can to meet all of the regulations,” Purdon said. He noted that the NPDES permit was implemented by the water quality board in May 2011, as a result of pressure from Gonzalez and CERF.
While the future appears to be brighter for the Big Bay Boom show than it was in 2010, Purdon is uncertain of what, exactly, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board will expect in future water quality monitoring during the shows.
“They may be doing some water monitoring in the future, and we need to figure that out,” Purdon said. “We can’t afford doing the monitoring ourselves. SeaWorld spent something like $3 million monitoring for their fireworks shows, and we can’t afford that.”