California’s stormwater system is a mess – but it doesn’t have to be.

State regulators, environmentalists and industry representatives all have their own problems with the system that’s supposed to keep California’s water clean after it rains. Stormwater sweeps up all kinds of debris and bits of pollution and then carries it out to the ocean.

The state doesn’t have enough staff to enforce the law. There are about 75 regulators at the State Water Resources Board and the nine regional boards that report to it, including the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. Those dozens of people have to regulate thousands of businesses – so many that they aren’t actually sure how many they’re policing.

Environmentalists think the state isn’t doing its job. They’ve begun their own crackdown on companies that are fouling up creeks and coasts.

Industry says the law is sometimes arbitrarily enforced, particularly when environmental attorneys get involved.

Here’s a few things that might help:

Involve Cities

In January 2016, the city of San Diego had a list of 2,400 businesses that were operating without a necessary water pollution control permit, known as an Industrial General Permit. By December 2016, fewer than 400 businesses in the city had the permit.

The city could require any business that opens to get the permit in place before it can obtain a business tax certificate, which is required for a business to operate. After all, why should a business be allowed to open if, on Day One, it is going to be violating the Clean Water Act?

S. Wayne Rosenbaum, an attorney who represents businesses covered by the permit, and Livia Borak Beaudin, who sues businesses for violating clean water rules, both agree it makes sense to tie a business license to a water pollution control permit.

Environmentalists have also suggested cities could get more involved in cracking down on businesses that are escaping clean water rules. Even though the city identified over 2,000 businesses it thought were breaking the law, the law doesn’t require the city to stop them. Instead, the city just sends its list to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Hire More People

Businesses from scrapyards to vineyards must get an Industrial General Permit, but the state isn’t sure how many businesses are covered by the permit. Estimates range between 10,000 and 130,000.

The state says it doesn’t have the resources to make sure every business gets a permit. In fact, it doesn’t even think it has the resources to alert each business it suspects should have a permit.

That’s because if it sent mail to 10,000 businesses, it might have to answer 10,000 replies – overwhelming staffers.

If the state believes the water should be clean, the state could just hire more staff to make sure the water is clean.

Right now, regulators try to use what staff they do have to deal with the “greatest threats to the environment,” as David Gibson, the head of the San Diego Regional Board put it in a recent commentary. But more staff could deal with more threats.

Treat All the Water

Currently, regulations focus on getting each business to reduce its pollution to tiny, tiny amounts – parts per million of copper, for instance.

Together, all these businesses can spoil the bay, but alone a single site isn’t a big deal. Instead of making each business spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to keep its own site clean, everyone could pool their money and build stormwater treatment plants.

These would be like sewer treatment plants, which take a bunch of polluted water and clean it up in one place. Businesses no longer have an outhouse or cesspool to deal with – they will have all pooled their money to solve a collective problem.

Some in industry are keen on this solution, as is the San Diego County Building Industry Association, whose members have to comply with their own expensive set of stormwater rules.

There’s another bonus: Treatment plants could also provide San Diego with a new source of drinking water. Stormwater capture projects could “create water supply while reducing water pollution in our rivers and streams, along our coastlines,” Matt O’Malley, the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, wrote in a recent blog post.

The San Diego Foundation gave a group of industry and environmental representatives a $50,000 grant to begin studying this solution.

There are a few drawbacks, though.

The first is that a treatment plant would necessarily be at the end of a creek or river. The water coming out of it would be clean, so dirty water wouldn’t end up in the bay or the ocean. But the water going into the plant would remain dirty. This solves one problem but doesn’t clean up the creek. This is bad for aquatic life and for people who hope to turn a place like Chollas Creek back into a place where they can someday fish and swim.

And unless businesses are required to pay the entire cost of the treatment plant, taxpayers could end up paying for something that treats pollution created by somebody else.

Source Reduction

Stormwater pollution laws focus on small bits of pollution that add up. We’re no longer really looking at barrels full of green ooze being dumped into rivers, we’re looking at copper from brake pads, zinc from the coating on fences and roofs, oil from parking lots, grease from restaurants, pesticides from yards and trash from everywhere.

Regulators have already been working to curb this pollution. Lead is no longer allowed in gasoline. Some pesticides have been banned or are tightly regulated.

In San Diego, copper is a major source of metals pollution in Chollas Creek. As part of an effort to reduce cleanup costs for the creek, the city of San Diego lobbied for a 2010 law that will gradually reduce the amount of copper allowed in brake pads.

Manage Expectations

The 1972 Clean Water Act had an ambitious goal of making all the nation’s waterways fishable and swimmable by the mid-1980s. This, of course, has not happened – miles and miles of local and state streams are not fishable and are not swimmable.

Perhaps we should curb our expectations. This is something that Ohio did two decades ago and that Minnesota is attempting to do now using a series of regulations known as “tiered aquatic life uses.” The tiers are an attempt to reconcile an ideal with a reality – that many waterways are suffering the ongoing effects of decades of intensive human use of land and water and that isn’t going away. Some of the water quality standards may just be too ambitious.

If California did this, it would look at its streams in urban areas and decide how realistically we can actually clean them up, said Xavier Swamikannu, a UCLA professor who used to be the head of the stormwater program for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. He thinks the idea makes sense but would frustrate environmentalists.

“If you have a standard that is based on ’72, you can’t get there,” he said, referring to the most ambitious goals of the Clean Water Act. “You can keep trying, you can hold ground, but you just can’t get back to ’72.”

In some ways, the San Diego Regional Board has recognized this reality. In a 2013 document known as its “Practical Vision,” Gibson wrote that “the Clean Water Act has been often implemented through the lens of chemistry alone as if the goal were to have distilled water flowing in concrete channels without necessarily considering the costs, the environmental context of the discharges, or the biological and physical integrity of the receiving waters.”

This is one of the reasons the board is preparing to relax rules requiring the cleanup of Chollas Creek, one of the region’s most polluted waterways. By doing so, it will save San Diego cities $1 billion. The board believes its action will still protect the creek but at a reasonable cost.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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