Storm Drains: The City's Next Big Opportunity


girlschasesglobedotcomStormwater management. Deferred maintenance. Debt service. Not what you had in mind?

Well, wake up, San Diego. How City Hall deals with these seemingly mundane concerns will make or break our City’s success in the next decade. And every one of us plays a role—with our actions and our pocketbooks.

Stormwater is the otherwise innocent flow of water that comes out of gardens, off of cars and from the streets, carrying with it metal dust, bacteria, soaps and other pollutants– directly into our water. It’s the number one water pollution problem in San Diego. Nearly every waterway in the City of San Diego is listed on the federal “303(d)” list for excess amounts of some pollutant and a significant number of creeks, rivers and larger water bodies throughout the county are, as well.

A recent report from the City of San Diego Office of the Independent Budget Analyst underscores the need for careful financial planning to deal with our runoff, and its place among the many challenges (transportation, roads, safety) that we face to keep our motto as America’s Finest City.

We have a new stormwater permit that carries with it heavy penalties to the City for polluting our water over the limits and this has to become a call to action. We need to invest and we need to do so now. The report points out that we have delayed critical infrastructure improvements for way too long – and regulations currently in place mean that if we continue to kick the can down the road, fees will be harsh and damaging– as much as $37,500 per day ($10,000 from the new permit and $27,500 from the federal EPA).

So what does that mean to us?

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Some would have us believe that faced with this investment, the case for pollution prevention is hopeless. Over the course of five years, we must invest $641 million dollars in stormwater management; over 18 years, it’s more than $2 billion. This includes routine maintenance, a backlog of maintenance and new construction needs that built up in past years, flood management and improvements to meet compliance requirements.

Ratepayers won’t stand for it, say some.

Bologna, say I.

The City is tasked with managing the day-to-day business of running a city of over a million people and thousands of businesses. But “the City” is us. Every time one of us turns on a hose, drives a vehicle, or sweeps dust into a gutter, the City prevents that from polluting the streams, lakes and ocean that lie downstream of the storm drain. And we pay them for that. Guess how much? We pay a whopping 95 cents per month per household. And that only covers about 15 percent of the demand placed on the General Fund. The Independent Budget Analyst’s report looked at whether ratepayer fees could keep up with growing demands. And we can.

This is where we need to step up. In five years our household contribution might rise to $11.14/month. On the commercial/industrial side, rates rise from $0.065/hundred cubic feet today to $0.76/hundred cubic feet in 2019. These are not insignificant rate increases. I’m not suggesting that they won’t be felt. Nor do I believe that an ever-rising debt burden to our City is something that we should take on casually.

But let’s stop and consider what this represents.

img 5671-sWe have an innovation economy that thrives on clean water for its processes and a beautiful city with outdoor recreation and healthy communities to attract top-notch employees. The maritime economy supports 46,000 jobs and looks to the City as a partner that must carry its weight to keep San Diego Bay healthy. Visitors from around the world choose our town for professional and social conventions, adventure and luxury vacations, picture-perfect weddings and as their go-to year-after-year escape. What about your Saturday trips to Mission Bay with the kids, morning fishing ritual and sunset walks? Those are in peril if we don’t recognize the role that we play and the stand the City must take.

But, what about the roads? That’s right! What about the roads? And the libraries, parks, schools, and first responders? This is not just about storm drains. This is about addressing all the needs that our City has.

We’re the eighth largest City in the nation and our needs are complex and constant. A mayor, city council and staff that can address these needs in a methodical, responsible way should earn the respect and support of our community.

An important factor to note is that the analysis about stormwater costs assumes zero growth in households. While this may be appropriately conservative, it is nonetheless inconsistent with the 2050 Regional Growth forecast by SANDAG (June 2010), which predicts double-digit population growth in our region over the 18-year period that this analysis takes place, 18% even by 2020. Here’s an easy-to-read account by Voice of San Diego. So both the ratepayer base—and the demand on our infrastructure—will grow. We can’t kick the can any more; we must deal with this now and the assessment needs to be holistic. In fact, managing the City’s water offers a perfect example of that. The question of stormwater, wastewater and drinking water should be examined together, a point of view that is gaining traction with planners and must continue to be the trend. When we look at stormwater, we should see a resource that can be captured and used to reduce other costs and demands. With innovative management like that, we’ll free up resources for other City needs.


The Office of the Independent Budget Analyst did a wise thing in its report. It looked to other California cities for best practices. And it found that other cities have higher stormwater fees. They have voter-approved bonds and taxes. And they have voter-approved fees for refuse collection and sewage infrastructure.

surfer sunsetThe City of San Diego has hard choices to make when considering its budget. Stormwater management is one of many things we have to address. Choices made in the past mean that we haven’t kept up with needed repairs. But we can’t just throw our hands in the air because it costs money to keep up with our urbanized community and let the infrastructure crumble around us. We are not a community of residents, businesses and cities to sit around and do nothing. We value our lakes, our rivers, our beaches, our ocean. They give us back an exceptional quality of life and a vibrant economy of innovation and maritime industry. That is why we must work—and work hard—to get these decisions right.

So don’t let the City decision-makers stall or claim that we can’t afford to protect our water from pollution. Can we make changes that reduce the cost? Yes, and we should. Eliminate it, or the need for it? No. So, demand from council members and the mayor that stormwater management stands high on their list of priorities. When you are asked to vote for a bond to fund deferred maintenance, vote yes. It’s the “I Love My Life In San Diego” bond, the “My Business Needs This” fee, and the “We’re in it Together” charge.