Think Blue San Diego emphasizes stormwater infrastructure needs now and in the future

Mission Bay watershed drains an area of 67 square miles and contains some of the more intensely urbanized areas of San Diego.
The Mission Bay watershed drains an area of 67 square miles and contains some of the more intensely urbanized areas of the county, including Clairemont, La Jolla and Pacific Beach.
(Courtesy of Think Blue San Diego)

When San Diego’s stormwater system was first constructed, the infrastructure was built with the primary function of preventing flooding.

In the years since, insufficient budgets and additional demands from both population increase and climate change have proven the infrastructure to be lacking.

The Think Blue San Diego educational campaign, in conjunction with the staff at the City of San Diego’s Stormwater Department, is seeking to modernize the stormwater infrastructure and meet the demands of today.

The stormwater department has seen a prolonged capital backlog, meaning the city budget has been focused elsewhere. This has left the department to operate with a sizable budget deficit for years. Think Blue is seeking to bolster the department’s funding and secure $1.2 billion to improve the stormwater infrastructure.

One of the community partners of the Think Blue campaign is the nonprofit San Diego Coastkeeper, which leads educational campaigns and informs city officials on local needs. Matt O’Malley, the organization’s executive director and managing attorney, said funding has left the stormwater system in a “very poor” condition.

“It’s completely underfunded, it’s by far the city’s biggest deficit in any area of funding,” O’Malley said. “The city is facing a $2 billion funding gap over the next five years. It’s absolutely shameful and it comes from a long-term failure of leadership to take this seriously.”

According to a funding strategy audit report from February produced by Think Blue, there were 11 emergency repair projects for the Stormwater Department in 2021 that cost over $9 million — none of which were originally in the budget. Addressing emergency repairs, like sinkholes, further exacerbate funding woes because it eats into an already emaciated funding source.

The Regional Water Board that represents San Diego says some of these suggested improvements could include the expansion of green infrastructure like biofiltration stormwater treatment devices, green street designs and creek or stream restoration projects. Green infrastructure could filter pollutants using indigenous soil and bacteria to break down pollutants before stormwater reaches the water system.

Other improvements could include the supplementation of stormwater harvesting programs that would both reduce polluted runoff and establish a reserve of water for use in periods of drought.

Adverse impacts on water quality are already a reality

Stormwater runoff is generated when water from rain and snowmelt flows over land or impervious surfaces. As the runoff flows over paved streets, parking lots, rooftops, lawns, farms and industrial sites it gathers debris and pollutants that can adversely affect water quality in rivers, lakes and coastal waters, officials said.

“(The current system is) not acting to treat the water, it’s just taking pollutants from the environment and dumping it into our rivers and oceans,” O’Malley said. “That’s why there are so many postings of beach closures so frequently.”

One of the more noticeable adverse impacts can be seen in the waters of Mission Bay, where O’Malley said these closures tend to occur more frequently than other sites in the San Diego area.

As of June 23, the North Cove of Vacation Isle in Mission Bay was closed due to high levels of bacteria, and visitors were advised to avoid the waters in the area.

“A lot of old stormwater pipes empty out into Mission Bay, and especially from the east side, there’s not a whole lot of flushing,” O’Malley said. “Anecdotally I can tell you that we have eight people on our staff at San Diego Coastkeeper, and none of us would submerge our heads in the water at Mission Bay because we are aware of what’s in there or what could be in there on a regular basis.”

Closing the gap

In its February audit report, the Stormwater Department acknowledged its budgetary struggles, which are as much as $274 million a year. Projections estimate that modernizing the existing infrastructure to meet current and future demands would cost as much as $1.2 billion. But with existing funding avenues proving to be lackluster, officials also recognize the need to implement a long-term funding mechanism to ensure the vitality of such improvements.

California has a number of grants dedicated to projects that improve water quality, but Regional Water Board officials say these grants are awarded through a “competitive” application process. As they elaborated in an email, “it depends on the project’s competitiveness compared to other grant applications statewide.”

One funding mechanism Think Blue explored in its February audit report is a parcel tax on impermeable surface area. This would mean that for each square footage of surfaces that prevent stormwater from accessing the soil, such as roofs or driveways, there could come a department charge of four cents per square foot of surface. Such a measure would need to be passed by ballot before it could take effect in San Diego.

“Water quality (as a voter’s issue) polls incredibly high,” O’Malley said. “San Diegans respond really well to issues about clean water.”

A focus group study found that support for related issues was around the 60th percentile. A public ballot measure initiated by the city would need 66 percent of the vote to pass, meaning this would likely be a narrow success. For this reason, O’Malley said the city decided against running such a measure in 2022, but may look to future elections.

“If a citizen group gets together enough signatures to run a measure, however, you would only need 50 percent of the vote,” O’Malley said. “So there is a potential that a group like ours could draft up something like that in a couple years. From what the polling shows, it would almost certainly pass (if taken through that method).”

A similar measure, the Measure W Safe Clean Water Program, was successfully passed by the City of Los Angeles in 2018 by more than two-thirds of the vote. This measure parallels many objectives of the Think Blue campaign in San Diego, instituting a parcel tax to address the needs for reducing pollution entering the city’s waterways.

If San Diego is unable to properly fund the stormwater district, O’Malley said the issue will be compounded as time goes on. Emergency repairs could become a more regular occurrence, making for a more expensive alternative to capital improvements.

Especially in coastal communities like Pacific Beach, where plumbing is gravity-dependent, sea level rise could compromise the effectiveness of drainage and weaken the infrastructure’s ability to prevent flooding, he said.

“The more we push this off, it will become more and more expensive to address,” O’Malley said. “We’ll have increased flooding because our infrastructure has not adapted to climate change.”

San Diego Regional Water Board officials say that improvements in the quality of stormwater runoff throughout the region are already underway, and residents can expect improvements to continue to occur over time through adaptive management of each jurisdiction’s program. All 39 municipal stormwater runoff management programs are implementing strategies to control pollution in stormwater runoff.

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