Stormwater runs into Auburn Creek in San Diego. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The infrastructure deficit that has hung over San Diego politics for years without meaningful intervention is perhaps better understood as a stormwater deficit.

Eight years ago, Mayor Todd Gloria, then Council president, pledged to craft an infrastructure-focused ballot measure for the 2016 ballot, to address the city’s crumbling roads, sidewalks, pipes and drains. That never happened, and the problem has only gotten worse. But the city now appears to be serious about pursing a measure to fund a specific, and massive, piece of the city’s infrastructure failure: its stormwater system.

It’s been a poorly kept secret in City Hall that for all the talk of sexy streets, the brunt of the city’s needs in repairing all the physical components that make life in a city possible actually owe to the derelict system we use to control where water goes after it hits the ground from rain.

The city’s busted stormwater system leads to flooding, sinkholes and toxic and bacteria-laden material flowing into the region’s coastal waters. And while it isn’t unique to San Diego that stormwater infrastructure like drains, pipes and pump stations has gotten worse year after year, with annual funding insufficient to keep the problem from getting worse, let alone making any progress on its overall condition, it is now clear that stormwater is the city’s biggest infrastructure problem – and also, that the city might actually do something about it.

In the next five years, the city projects that it will need to spend some $5.7 billion on all of its infrastructure needs. That includes streets, sidewalks, city buildings, parks, traffic signals – everything – and it does not include the city’s so called “discretionary” needs, which refers to projects the city wants to do, but recognizes as nonessential, like new protected bike lanes.

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But the gap the city anticipates between the money it has to spend in the next five years, and that $5.7 billion need is massive: $2.3 billion.

Of that $2.3 billion gap, more than half, $1.27 billion, is stormwater needs.

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The city’s needed funding for stormwater alone, that is, outpaces its unfunded need for all its roads, streetlights, sidewalks, parks and buildings combined. That need is driven by compounding issues: The state has increased regulatory requirements on how effective the city’s stormwater system needs to be, at the same time that the city’s system became obsolete, its population grew and the impacts of climate change grew more severe.

And that’s just over the next five years. The city’s stormwater department estimates an average gap between needed stormwater funding and available stormwater funding of about $225 million a year through 2040.

That daunting state of affairs is why the city is now pursuing a potential ballot measure in 2022 to address some of that need. A City Council committee last month took the first steps to that end, when it greenlit the polling and community outreach work that would be the basis of a ballot measure. The Council is also set to hear from city staff Tuesday on the grim five-year outlook for funding all the necessary improvements to the city’s roads, streets, drains, pipes and all the rest.

In the summer of 2018, the city auditor’s office published a scathing report outlining the city’s history of ignoring its growing stormwater needs. That was the start of the process that has put a ballot measure in play. One of its recommendations was for the city to put together a long-term funding strategy in January 2021 – just in time for a new mayor to take office.

That doesn’t mean it was a new conversation, though.

Kris McFadden, director of the city’s transportation and storm water department, told the City Council’s environment committee last month that he’s been having some version of this conversation for all of the 13 years he’s worked for the city, and called the current city effort to address the problem its most comprehensive attempt.

“We are entering a new era for stormwater in San Diego,” he said.

The auditor’s office was a bit more stinging in making the same observation in its 2018 report that set the current tax-hike exploration in motion.

The city implemented a stormwater fee on residents in 1991, aimed at fully covering the city’s annual stormwater needs. But it has increased that fee only twice, and not since 1997, when the passage of a state ballot measure meant such increases required a popular vote. Single-family homes since then have paid about $0.95 a month, while apartments and commercial properties are charged a similar level by square footage.

But the auditors chronicled 12 times since 1997 that various reports went to city officials, alerting them to the simple fact that they were not coming close to covering their annual stormwater needs.

“Our 2018 audit found that the City had no plan to address a large and growing funding gap for storm water issues. In just two and a half years since the audit was released, the 5-year funding gap has more than doubled and now exceeds $1 billion, threatening the City’s ability to fund storm water infrastructure needs and other essential City services,” said Andy Hanau, the city auditor. “We do not endorse any particular funding mechanism, but we commend the City for following the best practices we recommended and developing a strategy to address this critical issue.”

The city’s stormwater woes are felt most acutely in the same neighborhoods that have been historically left behind in city infrastructure investments.

The Chollas Creek Watershed, for instance, covers a broad swath of the city’s urban core, including City Heights, southeastern San Diego neighborhoods and Barrio Logan before it dumps out into San Diego Bay. The area deals with both polluted waters due to toxic runoff, and severe flooding risks due to the stormwater system’s condition. Those neighborhoods, compared to the city as a whole, are disproportionately home to low-income residents and people of color.

Groundwork San Diego Chollas Creek is a nonprofit group that the city has allowed to manage the watershed.

Bill Ponder, a Groundwork board member, said his group a few years ago put together its own assessment of the infrastructure needs of the Chollas Creek area. The group’s determination was that the stormwater system was doomed to fail when it was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“They made sure the water runs through, and said, ‘We did our job,’” Ponder said. “They created this mess in the first place. They didn’t give a shit about our community. They didn’t give a damn. They said, ‘Let’s do this, and be on with it.’”

The group found that reaching an acceptable standard in Chollas Creek alone would cost some $200 million in immediate repairs, Ponder said. The group presented their findings to then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer, he said, but it never went anywhere.

“What Groundwork has tried to do is say, ‘If you don’t have the money, let’s at least prioritize the most critical pieces, and do those,’” he said. “This isn’t a hypothetical problem. You come look at Chollas Creek after a heavy rain, you may see all kinds of toxic shit, tires, who knows what, just floating through.”

He and Groundwork have also been pushing to institute a legislative briefing for officials who represent the multiple Council, state and federal districts through which the watershed cuts.

“The environmental racism piece of this is, we know all the stuff that floats down there, but we don’t know the level of exposure to children, to pregnant women, who live where all the runoff is,” he said. “We haven’t done the intensive work to find out what happens to their health.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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