King tide waves slam onto the cliffs in La Jolla on Jan. 22, 2023.
King tide waves slam onto the cliffs in La Jolla on Jan. 22, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Stormy Drainels lives on 21st and Worth Street in San Francisco.

That’s what a volunteer San Franciscan calls the drain they adopted, agreeing to keep it clear of debris to help prevent street flooding and ocean pollution under the city Public Utilities Commission’s Adopt-a-Drain program. The program sends periodic email notifications before large storms reminding drain parents to clear their storm grates before it rains. 

California cities control flooding from urban streets by allowing rainwater to collect along curbs and fall through grated storm drains which dump all that water and debris into the ocean. That’s why beaches are typically closed for 72 hours after a rain event in San Diego; storm drains carry all kinds of waste from pet excrement in lawns to oils and other spills from industrial businesses. 

Since San Francisco’s program began in 2016, city residents adopted a quarter of the city’s 25,000 storm drains, creating a kind of free army of stormwater maintenance.

What neighboring pun artists dubbed their stormwater outlets makes for a fine hour of internet scrolling, with such strokes of genius as “Drain’t Misbehavin’” named after the Fats Waller hit, or “A Hard Drain’s Gonna Fall,” a nod to the infamous Bob Dylan ode. Some drains, as you might expect, are named things that are downright naughty. But instead of trash-clogged storm drains and road flooding, the streets of San Francisco are littered with wordsmithing.

Right now, San Diego’s storm drains are nameless orphans, waiting their turn for routine maintenance from the city of San Diego’s Stormwater Department.

Bethany Bezak, the city’s interim stormwater director, told the City Council’s Environment Committee it has less than a third of the dollars it needs this fiscal year to build and maintain miles of stormwater pipes and pumps. A $733 million loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will only cover 36 percent of the projects the department needs to build over the next five years, and none of the rising maintenance needs.

In 2021, we reported the city’s stormwater systems deficit sat at $1.27 billion – more than half of what the city said it needed to spend on infrastructure in the next five years. A measure to raise money for stormwater infrastructure didn’t make it onto the 2022 ballot. 

The City Council Environment Committee Chair, Joe LaCava, asked Bezak if the department would consider allowing San Diegans to adopt their drains. She pointed to the city’s storm drain stenciling program, an event that is promoted a few times per year by the “I Love a Clean San Diego” organization, which amounts to painting blue “drains to the ocean” signs. 

There’s a map, kind of like the Adopt-a-Drain program hosts, showing where drains have been stenciled. Between Jan. 1, 2022, and Monday, 157 volunteer San Diegans painted 186 drains. But stenciling a drain doesn’t amount to the kind of routine care adopting an orphaned drain requires. 

In San Francisco, adoptive drain parents are advised to wear bright yellow safety vests, gloves and sweep, rake or shovel sharp debris and then separate materials into their recycling, organic waste and trash bins. Found hazardous or medical waste should never be touched and trigger a report to a city call center. 

California King Tides Are Glimpse of Future Sea Level Rise

King tide waves at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla on Jan. 22, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Our photographer Ariana Drehsler captured waves slamming against the Children’s Pool in La Jolla Saturday morning, just an hour after San Diego experienced one of the highest tides of the year. 

King Tides are a term of art used to describe the phenomenon when tides reach peak highs and extreme lows – exposing magnificent tide pooling opportunities along the coast. Tides are the ocean’s response to the gravitational pull of both the moon and sun. The moon’s gravitational force is about twice as strong as the sun, explains California Sea Grant. Saturday was a new moon – when the moon lands between the sun and the earth along its orbit. That sun-moon-earth alignment causes an exceptional gravitational pull on the ocean, pulling that water outward like a bulge, creating conditions for tides to roll in and out at their extremes. 

Here’s a short Tik Tok explainer on how King Tides can help us envision a future of higher seas, should the burning of fossil fuels exacerbate the warming of the planet. 

Circulating Elsewhere in San Diego

  • The city of Tijuana is once again buying emergency water from California after its aqueduct to its Colorado River supply failed. (Voice of San Diego and Tijuanapress.com)
  • A quick explainer on where San Diego gets its water, and a bonus video where I asked San Diegans and out-of-towners whether they knew. You might be surprised by their answers. 
  • Ranchers in Tijuana River Valley wonder why local governments appear to have abandoned the task of dredging muck and trash from the river channel, which they say is why their ranches flooded so badly this year. (Voice of San Diego)
  • By way of its Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego has put gas-powered stoves on notice. Plans to decarbonize or zero-out fossil fuels from buildings likely include phasing-out these devices. (Voice of San Diego)
  • VOSD Podcast hosts featured this debate on the most recent episode. (Voice of San Diego)
  • Some San Diegans are getting a new dumpster for food waste and other organic material, part of the state’s quest to eliminate planet-warming methane from landfills. (Voice of San Diego)
  • The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth did an even deeper dive into the nexus of solar and water demand in Imperial Valley. San Diego is already developing a lot of solar in Imperial Valley and elsewhere to feed its appetite for renewable energy, something that really peeves a number of farmers.
  • California’s utility regulator said it’s going to ask the federal government to “take a serious look at what is going on in the gas and electric markets in the West.” (Union Tribune)
  • A massive injection of federal cash is driving forest thinning – eliminating thickets of younger trees that crowd old growth –  in the name of wildfire prevention among San Diego’s national forests. The Union Tribune’s Joshua Emerson Smith tells us what that means for local forests.
  • A wastewater pumping station malfunction caused a spill of 500,000 gallons of sewage into San Diego Bay. (Union Tribune)

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. Dear SD Voice,
    Thank you for writing this article to help explain the importance of storm drain maintenance. I think I understand that backed-up street drains can complicate the removal of storm rainwater from impervious surfaces (i.e. paved streets, parking lots, etc.), but did you explain this accurately in your article? Doesn’t the issue of blocked drains really obscure some of the realities of the degradation of water quality that come with human landscapes (see “impervious surfaces” above)? Clogged street stormwater drains can actually filter litter from entering the watershed, true. However, also true, backed-up stormwater can draw more litter and soluble contaminants into the water (read USEPA sections on water pollution in the US and in particular, “non-point source water pollution”).
    I would argue that the real issues are too much the laying of too many impervious surfaces in human landscapes, street litter, and chemicals that are adsorbed onto impervious surfaces (i.e. fluid leaky internal combustion car engines, deposited air pollution like soot and asbestos, and the list goes on..).
    Yes, yes we need to clean the drain gratings of debris and especially of litter (think forever plastics that are not recycled and will not be recycled, i.e. multi-material flexible packaging) and hazardous materials and articles (think discarded e-cigs with lithium-ion batteries).
    How about this issue of ocean pollution right in Pacific Beach: Open street runoff into the ocean as seen in the attached pictures at the end of Chalcedony St.?
    This is not as simple as it seems, but I am afraid your article does not help citizens form the correct ideas about the truer nature of the problem of water management where the more important goal is preserving the quality of the rainwater. I would lastly suggest that this important issue starts right under one’s own feet and the land one owns or cares for, including the streets, to your point about street drains. Try harder next time to get these issues right, but please keep trying! I sincerely hope that this very environmental issue becomes clearer to you and your readers over time. Good luck; it is important to know and understand this stuff!
    I am impressed enough of your efforts to eventually become a donor to your local journalism because that is important too!

  2. In other words, the taxpayers should volunteer to provide a service that their tax dollars ought to be covering already. San Francisco is a corrupt and failed city; sorry to see San Diego heading down the same road of governmental dysfunction and non-accountability.

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