Storm Drains: The City’s Next Big Financial Drain

Storm Drains: The City’s Next Big Financial Drain

Image via Shutterstock

In the next five years, the city of San Diego will have to increase its spending on stormwater projects an average of $164 million annually, more than it costs to run its park and library systems combined.

To help pay for this, the city could increase homeowners’ monthly stormwater fees by more than 1,000 percent, though any increase would require a public vote. If the city doesn’t find the money, it could face up to $37,500 in daily fines every time it pollutes the ocean.

“That’s a little sobering,” City Councilman David Alvarez said Wednesday after hearing a report with all these numbers.

The astronomical figures punctuate a long-running tension for the city over whether to chip away at the backlog of broken infrastructure or build new things residents need.

But unlike San Diego’s roads, which continue to deteriorate, and emergency response times, which still fall short of city goals, a failure to invest in stormwater projects could lead to a direct hit to the city’s pocketbook through lawsuits and state and federal fines.

New, more stringent regulations from the region’s water quality control board detail the amount of pollution allowed to flow from the city’s stormdrain system into the ocean – including from rain, people washing their cars and debris from creeks.

The city’s price tag includes the costs of repairing stormdrain pipes, but also from more frequent street sweeping and even buying land to collect pollutants before they’re washed into the system.

The stormwater department argues that if it doesn’t begin to ramp up spending now, it can’t possibly meet water quality mandates by the time many go into effect in 2018. The city has known the new regulations were coming for a while – former Mayor Jerry Sanders batted around trying to hike stormwater fees – but ultimately no one took any major steps toward dealing with it. The city’s projecting it will cost $2.7 billion over the next 17 years to comply with the rules.

“The thinking was, it’s in the future and it’s such a ridiculous cost, it can’t be correct,” said Seth Gates, a co-author of the report for the city’s independent budget analyst. “It’s on us now, and our staff is saying this is the cost for compliance. People still can’t believe it.”

To be sure, the numbers could represent a worst-case scenario. Stormwater officials told a City Council committee on Wednesday that they’re negotiating with the water quality board to make some of the regulations less stringent. For instance, changes to how metal pollution is calculated in Chollas Creek, which runs through City Heights, southeastern San Diego and Barrio Logan, could lower overall costs by $800 million, officials said.

The city is, however, beginning to take these numbers seriously. In its most recent bond issue, the city told investors that rising stormwater costs were a risk to its financial stability.

Ways to pay for all this have their drawbacks. Any increase to stormwater fees would require a majority vote of all property owners or two-thirds of the general electorate. The city could continue to borrow money for upgrades, but that would compete with money for street and building repairs and cost a lot more when spread out over decades. Cash from the day-to-day budget would compete with police, fire, library hours and other regular government services.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.


Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

  • 915 Posts
  • 29
    Followers

Show comments
Before you comment, read these simple guidelines on what is not allowed.

26 comments
Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Cheaper to succeed from the state and keep Sacramento from skimming our tax money and tying our hands.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Cheaper to succeed from the state and keep Sacramento from skimming our tax money and tying our hands.

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot

"San Diego will have to increase its spending on stormwater projects an average of $164 million annually, more than it costs to run its park and library systems combined." No big deal, but $164M isn't simply more than park & libraries combined. It's over $30 million more than those combined. Worth getting the scale right.

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot subscriber

"San Diego will have to increase its spending on stormwater projects an average of $164 million annually, more than it costs to run its park and library systems combined." No big deal, but $164M isn't simply more than park & libraries combined. It's over $30 million more than those combined. Worth getting the scale right.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink

Here are strategies that could be used to capture storm runoff: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMq6FYiF1mo "Ever wondered where the rain goes? Sustainable drainage animation.... " Of course, this also will cost and it won't be a quick fix but the sooner we begin to implement these techniques, the sooner positive results will show up. The restoration of wetlands and/or retention basins along canyon drainages would go a long way toward our goal along with other biological/ ecological benefits. A great example of this is at the uphill sector of Famosa Slough (intersection of Famosa Blvd. at Valeta St.) where a grant was obtained to create a series of retention basins planted with native plants associated with local wetlands. As Famosa Slough is tidal, the basins retain substantial surface and subsurface drainage to allow the native plants to take up much of the pollutants, including inorganics like oil and antifreeze that end up in the gutters all too often. The video shows numerous other was to capture and cleanse runoff.

Judith Swink
Judith Swink subscriber

Here are strategies that could be used to capture storm runoff: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMq6FYiF1mo "Ever wondered where the rain goes? Sustainable drainage animation.... " Of course, this also will cost and it won't be a quick fix but the sooner we begin to implement these techniques, the sooner positive results will show up. The restoration of wetlands and/or retention basins along canyon drainages would go a long way toward our goal along with other biological/ ecological benefits. A great example of this is at the uphill sector of Famosa Slough (intersection of Famosa Blvd. at Valeta St.) where a grant was obtained to create a series of retention basins planted with native plants associated with local wetlands. As Famosa Slough is tidal, the basins retain substantial surface and subsurface drainage to allow the native plants to take up much of the pollutants, including inorganics like oil and antifreeze that end up in the gutters all too often. The video shows numerous other was to capture and cleanse runoff.

Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson

The politically expedient decisions by the Politicians entrusted to lead the City and County over the past 100 Years are finally coming home to roost. The pollution created by cars includes air, ground, and water. Would we have less to deal with if Graft had not led the City to purchase the light rail lines in the late 1940's, tear them up, and replace them with inefficient bus and street systems that fueled expansion? This particular issue of storm water pollution will take a multiple approach to solve it, including use of new technologies, increased safe and efficient public transit, redesign of how streets are maintained, and redesign of how water is used within the environment. ONE of the reasons the I am stepping forward as a QUALIFIED WRITE-IN CANDIDATE for San Diego City Mayor is because my background includes an understanding of how these variables interact within the storm water equation - and knowledge of some of the solutions that can be implemented. You can learn more about my background at http://www.SanDiego2015.com

Kevin Swanson
Kevin Swanson subscribermember

The politically expedient decisions by the Politicians entrusted to lead the City and County over the past 100 Years are finally coming home to roost. The pollution created by cars includes air, ground, and water. Would we have less to deal with if Graft had not led the City to purchase the light rail lines in the late 1940's, tear them up, and replace them with inefficient bus and street systems that fueled expansion? This particular issue of storm water pollution will take a multiple approach to solve it, including use of new technologies, increased safe and efficient public transit, redesign of how streets are maintained, and redesign of how water is used within the environment. ONE of the reasons the I am stepping forward as a QUALIFIED WRITE-IN CANDIDATE for San Diego City Mayor is because my background includes an understanding of how these variables interact within the storm water equation - and knowledge of some of the solutions that can be implemented. You can learn more about my background at http://www.SanDiego2015.com

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage

The solution requires land to collect the storm water and clean it before it enters the beaches and bay. An cost effective solution is a full public State Tidelands Reclamation to create free underground space. Ultimately, the path of least resistance carries the urban storm water to Sea level at our State tidelands. A project with a cistern structural foundation on port tidelands would be proof of concept for the low cost solution of a full State Tidelands Reclamation. The same technology used for desal could be used to clean the urban storm water runoff for reuse along San Diego Bay, and Mission Bay. www.tinyurl.com/20110124a See Pages 13 through 16 for hydraulic fill in brown, where the loose, wet fill and bay mud could be taken out to expose the formation materials good enough for structural cistern foundations. The create space could be used for storm water capture and cleaning when raining, or just for parking when dry. The Revenue Review and Economic Competitiveness report “Starting a New Path for Success” dated December 1, 2010 recommends new ideas for Environmental Services such as of storm water capture plans and storm water abatement. Top Competitiveness Priorities includes: “Significantly improving storm water runoff programs to protect and improve water quality in bays and at beaches to achieve or exceed State and Federal water quality standards and goals. Encourage the City’s eight members of the County Water Authority to vigorously support regional water supply solutions including desalination, storage and indirect potable reuse… In July 2010, the State Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) adopted a list of 1,700 waters failing to meet federal “Fishable, Swimmable, Drinkable” standards – 15 percent are in San Diego County. The largest source of this pollution is urban runoff: grease, oils, copper, pesticides/herbicides, pet waste, and litter.” The report states that annually the City of San Diego subsidizes Storm Water Fees using $31.2 million from the General Fund. Item 201 of the City Council Meeting of Monday, January 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm. http://dockets.sandiego.gov/sirepub/cache/2/y5q2dx554etbhr55bbsk3a2i/29385401222011074116740.PDF

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage subscribermember

The solution requires land to collect the storm water and clean it before it enters the beaches and bay. An cost effective solution is a full public State Tidelands Reclamation to create free underground space. Ultimately, the path of least resistance carries the urban storm water to Sea level at our State tidelands. A project with a cistern structural foundation on port tidelands would be proof of concept for the low cost solution of a full State Tidelands Reclamation. The same technology used for desal could be used to clean the urban storm water runoff for reuse along San Diego Bay, and Mission Bay. www.tinyurl.com/20110124a See Pages 13 through 16 for hydraulic fill in brown, where the loose, wet fill and bay mud could be taken out to expose the formation materials good enough for structural cistern foundations. The create space could be used for storm water capture and cleaning when raining, or just for parking when dry. The Revenue Review and Economic Competitiveness report “Starting a New Path for Success” dated December 1, 2010 recommends new ideas for Environmental Services such as of storm water capture plans and storm water abatement. Top Competitiveness Priorities includes: “Significantly improving storm water runoff programs to protect and improve water quality in bays and at beaches to achieve or exceed State and Federal water quality standards and goals. Encourage the City’s eight members of the County Water Authority to vigorously support regional water supply solutions including desalination, storage and indirect potable reuse… In July 2010, the State Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) adopted a list of 1,700 waters failing to meet federal “Fishable, Swimmable, Drinkable” standards – 15 percent are in San Diego County. The largest source of this pollution is urban runoff: grease, oils, copper, pesticides/herbicides, pet waste, and litter.” The report states that annually the City of San Diego subsidizes Storm Water Fees using $31.2 million from the General Fund. Item 201 of the City Council Meeting of Monday, January 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm. http://dockets.sandiego.gov/sirepub/cache/2/y5q2dx554etbhr55bbsk3a2i/29385401222011074116740.PDF

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Spending $164 million annually to save $37,500 per day means we'd have to incur the $37,500 daily fine 4,373 days per year before it makes sense to upgrade the storm drains.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Spending $164 million annually to save $37,500 per day means we'd have to incur the $37,500 daily fine 4,373 days per year before it makes sense to upgrade the storm drains.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold

These are the people that brought to you this ridiculous permit. http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sandiego/about_us/board_members/Regional Water Quality Control Board - San Diegohttp://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sandiego/about_us/board_members/California Region Water Quality Control Board San Diego - Region 9 2375 Northside Drive, Suite 100 San Diego, California 92108 (619) 516-1990, CalNET: 8-734-2952, Fax: (619) 516-1994 Executive Officer State Board Liaison Regional Board Attorneys Exec...

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

These are the people that brought to you this ridiculous permit. http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sandiego/about_us/board_members/Regional Water Quality Control Board - San Diegohttp://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sandiego/about_us/board_members/California Region Water Quality Control Board San Diego - Region 9 2375 Northside Drive, Suite 100 San Diego, California 92108 (619) 516-1990, CalNET: 8-734-2952, Fax: (619) 516-1994 Executive Officer State Board Liaison Regional Board Attorneys Exec...

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger

The big challange is that the "polluters who steal from the public trust" is not some large faceless corporation. The polluters are the 3 million people in San Diego County and visitors who throw trash in the gutter, smoke and throw butts on our roadways, and anyone who discharges anything that makes it to the storm drain or into the river basins. To meet these more stringent regulations we will have to treat ALL storm water and ALL river discharge water. That is a huge task. Is it reasonable?

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon

That's $37,500 daily fines per incident of pollution. There could be lots more than one per day. Also, the regulations expose the city to third-party lawsuits. Not saying that no one should do a cost-benefit analysis, but it's important to understand the costs.

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger subscribermember

The big challange is that the "polluters who steal from the public trust" is not some large faceless corporation. The polluters are the 3 million people in San Diego County and visitors who throw trash in the gutter, smoke and throw butts on our roadways, and anyone who discharges anything that makes it to the storm drain or into the river basins. To meet these more stringent regulations we will have to treat ALL storm water and ALL river discharge water. That is a huge task. Is it reasonable?

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon memberadministrator

That's $37,500 daily fines per incident of pollution. There could be lots more than one per day. Also, the regulations expose the city to third-party lawsuits. Not saying that no one should do a cost-benefit analysis, but it's important to understand the costs.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Its going to take a whole lot of deliberate on the part of the public. Currently there are areas in the city where algae grows in the gutters because of overwatering. It is wasteful. It is the so called Urban Drool However the new water runoff policies call for code enforcement teams and whomever becomes Mayor will be implementing that. Where I take exception to Alvarez is his reffering to homeowners( the major target of the ordinance) as "polluters who steal from the public trust" and then "partnering with community groups to have more boots on the ground and eyes in the field." IOW he wants community "snitch squads" spying on their neighbors. How progressive of him.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Hi Liam. Appreciated. Water rates are another concern. From Alvarez blue print. "Implement a rate structure to promote conservation: As Mayor, David Alvarez will also move forward to create a water rate structure that incentivizes water conservation. A proper water rate structure is a proven and cost effective way to conserve water" He and the other candidates need to be clear on this subject. Historically water districts including San Diego have punished conservation by basing cutback rates on historic usage thus expecting ratepayers that have made the effort cut back even more while those that have not conserved are only expected to lower their consumption to where it should have been in the first place. I also have a concern on how his statement is worded. The city should be trying to provide residents water at the least cost rather than a weapon of social engineering. He, and the other candidates, need to be clear on this IMHO. Thanks

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon

Hi Mark- We plan to take a closer look at all the candidates plans through specific issues like infrastructure, emergency response, managed comp, etc. When I ask the candidates about infrastructure, I'll make sure to talk about stormwater.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Again. Why I asked you to considering in vetting water/runoff issue in his blueprint........ From Alvarez Blueprint....... "Pursue polluters who steal from the public trust: Beyond innovative stormwater pollution prevention projects and public education, David Alvarez will pass policies to hold polluters accountable for damaging our waterways; increasing the number of code enforcement teams and partnering with community groups to have more boots on the ground and eyes in the field." The New runoff rules are going to have a significant impact on everyone especially homeowners (through water rate increases and fines) on top of the proposed increases in stormwater fees.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Its going to take a whole lot of deliberate on the part of the public. Currently there are areas in the city where algae grows in the gutters because of overwatering. It is wasteful. It is the so called Urban Drool However the new water runoff policies call for code enforcement teams and whomever becomes Mayor will be implementing that. Where I take exception to Alvarez is his reffering to homeowners( the major target of the ordinance) as "polluters who steal from the public trust" and then "partnering with community groups to have more boots on the ground and eyes in the field." IOW he wants community "snitch squads" spying on their neighbors. How progressive of him.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Hi Liam. Appreciated. Water rates are another concern. From Alvarez blue print. "Implement a rate structure to promote conservation: As Mayor, David Alvarez will also move forward to create a water rate structure that incentivizes water conservation. A proper water rate structure is a proven and cost effective way to conserve water" He and the other candidates need to be clear on this subject. Historically water districts including San Diego have punished conservation by basing cutback rates on historic usage thus expecting ratepayers that have made the effort cut back even more while those that have not conserved are only expected to lower their consumption to where it should have been in the first place. I also have a concern on how his statement is worded. The city should be trying to provide residents water at the least cost rather than a weapon of social engineering. He, and the other candidates, need to be clear on this IMHO. Thanks

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon memberadministrator

Hi Mark- We plan to take a closer look at all the candidates plans through specific issues like infrastructure, emergency response, managed comp, etc. When I ask the candidates about infrastructure, I'll make sure to talk about stormwater.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Again. Why I asked you to considering in vetting water/runoff issue in his blueprint........ From Alvarez Blueprint....... "Pursue polluters who steal from the public trust: Beyond innovative stormwater pollution prevention projects and public education, David Alvarez will pass policies to hold polluters accountable for damaging our waterways; increasing the number of code enforcement teams and partnering with community groups to have more boots on the ground and eyes in the field." The New runoff rules are going to have a significant impact on everyone especially homeowners (through water rate increases and fines) on top of the proposed increases in stormwater fees.