The water police are coming. And they’re wearing plaid. At least that’s the vision of one Escondido councilman.
“I can see it happening, we’re going to have all these floppy-haired people with plaid shirts walking around with clipboards inspecting everybody’s house,” Councilman Ed Gallo said during a meeting this spring.
Except Gallo wasn’t worried about officials policing drought regulations – he was referring to stepped-up enforcement of lesser-known rules regarding storm water, uncontrolled water runoff in cities that carries pollution.
These storm water regulations have been around for a while but are a bit more mysterious to most people than the new drought regulations everyone is talking about. Yet, it’s the reason you’re not supposed to get in the ocean within 72 hours after it rains.
“Storm water,” the name implies that the rules apply only to water that falls during a storm, but storm water regulations apply to running water even when there’s no rain – so the rules provide a potent tool that can be used to target people and businesses letting water run off their property. That water picks up bits of copper that come off brake pads, oil from roads and pesticides from yards.
The regulations seemingly have nothing to do with the drought, but they can be used to crack down on overuse of water. Hence, worry about “water police.”
In the city of San Diego, there are only six storm water code enforcement officers covering the city’s 325 square miles.
But as cities encourage neighbors to snitch on each other for using too much water during the drought, some people could get fined for storm water issues.
To the regulators, storm water pollution is death by a thousand cuts – a bit of pollution runs off here, a bit here and then all this “urban drool” swells together as it flows into the Pacific Ocean.
The regulations are so detailed people could get into trouble for over-watering lawns, washing their cars or even letting their air conditioners drip – if any of that water runs into the street.
Even clean water running out of a sprinkler can sweep up pollution as it travels, which in San Diego means into a gutter and then out to sea.
The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board is looking to crack down on people or businesses that are letting water run off their property, and is considering going after a city or person that fails to stop such runoff.
“If we’re ever going to take enforcement on over-irrigation, it would be this summer,” said David Gibson, the executive officer of the regional water quality board.
There are several layers of storm water regulations, including a regional permit that cities have to comply with and rules within the cities that people have to comply with. Builders and industrial sites also have to comply with their own set of storm water regulations. The state has had trouble keeping up with enforcement, so some groups and lawyers are taking enforcement of the rules into their own hands.
Matt O’Malley, the legal and policy director at the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper, has been looking at how the city of San Diego enforces storm water regulations. If the city does not regulate runoff, it could face fines.
“The minute it goes into the gutter, they are creating a liability for everyone,” he said.
Earlier this year, Mayor Kevin Faulconer made it easier to issue citations to people who are over-watering. That meant cutting back on nice warning letters and moving more quickly to penalties, said Bill Harris, spokesman for the storm water division. Typically, violators will now get a notice that they are violating storm water regulations. Then if they persist in violating the rules, they’ll face fines that start at $100.
Harris said San Diego is aware of its responsibilities as a city and is trying to live up to storm water rules. The rules are the result of a bureaucratic snowball effect that starts with provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, which prompts state mandates that affect cities and the people in them.
While officials in Escondido have said they also intend to comply with storm water regulations, they have presented a jaded view of them in public.
Back in 2011, Mayor Sam Abed said “water quality” is not one of his favorite words.
“There is a benefit for the quality of water that we’re looking for – but you know what? The most cost-effective way to do that is Mother Nature,” he said. “That will take care of everything without regulation, without paperwork.”
During a more recent workshop on storm water regulations in March, Gallo, the City Council member, questioned whether Southern Californians should bear the brunt of ensuring a clean Pacific. He noted that water – and hence pollution – flows toward California from Asia.
And, he asked, “Does everybody realize that fish use the ocean as their toilet?”