Testing California's Waters

Summary: Stormwater runoff from our urban and suburban environments is a primary source of beach water pollution in California  -  yet California cities and agencies are constrained by state law from raising money to fix the problem. As a result, innovative solutions to the stormwater problem that other cities nationwide are pioneering are hard to replicate in most California cities. Nevertheless, thanks to efforts of local green infrastructure champions, example programs are being created.

Moving back home

Having recently moved from the east coast back to my home state of California, I was eager to learn how green infrastructure policies and stormwater management finance compared from coast to coast.  Stormwater runoff is a primary source of water pollution nationwide—be it a local river, lake, or ocean beach, so I knew cities in California would have their share of stormwater management challenges. What surprised me is just how far many of California’s cities are from meeting their water quality goals. This is underscored by NRDC's recently released Testing the Waters 2014 report. This report confirms many others in identifying polluted stormwater runoff as a main contributor to California’s polluted beach problem. When it rains, water runs off impervious areas such as sidewalks, roofs, and streets – along the way collecting a wide range of toxic substances such as pesticides, pet waste, and pollutants from vehicles, such as antifreeze.

The report indicates that California, for all its leadership in environmental markets, economic dependence on outdoor recreation, and reliance on coastal tourism, is not a leader in water quality-- it ranked only eleventh in overall beach water quality among 30 coastal states included in NRDC’s annual survey. Nine percent of beach water quality samples taken at beaches and coastal segments in California exceeded the pollution thresholds for safe swimming set by the EPA.

 What can California’s cities and counties do to reduce polluted stormwater runoff? Historically, they have relied on pipe and cement solutions including storm drains to divert polluted runoff away from urban and suburban centers and direct it into the ocean or other local waterway.  However, these systems are extremely expensive to construct and maintain and allow our scarce freshwater rain to wash through our streets and gutters, in the process accumulating pollutants. Then the entire polluted mix is delivered onto to our rivers, lakes, streams and beaches.  In sum, the status quo falls far short of delivering the water quality that California beachgoers should expect and deserve.

Meanwhile, across the country…

Federal funding used to cover well over half 80% of local water and wastewater management costs, but those dollars have been reduced to a trickle- today covering around 5% of stormwater infrastructure costs. In response, cities nationwide have created stormwater utility fees to raise the funds needed for stormwater management. Cities nationwide are also re-thinking how stormwater should be managed-- and are developing ambitious plans to manage stormwater on or near the site where it falls through “green” stormwater infrastructure practices such as rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavements, and other solutions that keep rainwater out of our gutters and waterways. 

A number of cities’ green infrastructure plans are highlighted in this EPA report as well as NRDC’s Rooftops to Rivers report. These cities benefit in many cases from highly evolved stormwater utilities that charge user-based fees to property owners (often based on impervious area). These utilities understand that preventing polluted runoff is accomplished most efficiently by specially-designed practices that capture stormwater where it falls and allowing it to be held, re-used, infiltrated, or evapo-transpirated through vegetation. They have done the math to understand how distributed, “green” solutions can be cheaper in addition to delivering a range of valuable local benefits in addition to water quality— these include including reducing urban summer temperatures, improving property values and air quality, reducing local flooding and reinvigorating neighborhoods, and even reducing crime. (NRDC recently published an entire paper dedicated to explaining the non-water quality benefits of green infrastructure for commercial property owners.)  

Increasingly often, cities are using stormwater fees and credits, and direct subsidies to provide incentives for private property owners to install green infrastructure on private property--- delivering water quality benefits at a fraction of the cost of similar stormwater management in the public right-of-way.  The most innovative of these programs, such as the Stormwater Management Incentives Program (SMIP), created by the Philadelphia Water Department, are creating large-scale green infrastructure “auction-type” programs to stretch public dollars much further than they would go if they were utilized for public right-of-way retrofits alone. (These are the programs my team at NRDC has been focusing on, together with our partners in the NatLab consortium.)

But in California…

In comparison, the stormwater management landscape in California is very challenging. Unfortunately, Proposition 218 (passed in 1996) stymies most California cities or agencies’ efforts to create stormwater utility fees, making it nearly impossible for cities to raise the funds for stormwater management from local property owners who create the runoff and are the beneficiaries of those stormwater services. And the needs are great—a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California estimated between $500-800 million dollars in deferred stormwater maintenance costs statewide and calls for a broad mix of funding to meet this need.

One billion dollars in low-to-no-interest loan funds are available through California’s state revolving funds (SRFs), but these dollars sit largely unused for stormwater management:  without the ability to collect stormwater fees, California cities see no way to repay borrowed funds.  Local “general funds” from property taxes and other local taxes have proven unlikely to fulfill stormwater resource needs.  Municipal bonds are the only option left for most cities, and those are a precious resource typically tapped for projects that are more likely to draw public support (new sports stadium, anyone?) In sum, California communities are unable to raise funds to maintain existing systems or to take advantage of new, more natural, and more cost-effective ways to manage their stormwater. It also leaves us with polluted beaches and wasted clean rainwater in California.

Looking Ahead

Despite these challenges, many California stormwater managers are trying to launch innovative programs to capture stormwater onsite and promote green practices. Take the City of San Diego—where beach recreation and outdoor tourism are critical parts of the local economy. With 3,000 San Diego beach closing days in 2013 because of water pollution, and 79% of local streams in “poor” or “very poor” condition, not to mention local flooding when it does rain, it’s hard to believe anyone would be content with the status quo. Indeed, San Diego’s local stormwater officials have created a rain barrel rebate program, and are looking to integrate green infrastructure practices into future water quality plans. Hopefully, Kevin Faulconer, San Diego’s new mayor, will support these efforts and realize the benefits that green infrastructure can bring to San Diego’s water quality as well as its tourism-heavy local economy.

Elsewhere in California, efforts are underway to amend Prop 218, and some cities, such as Los Angeles, have successfully passed bond measures to improve stormwater management through green practices. Other jurisdictions, such as San Mateo County, have found creative ways to raise funds for stormwater management, such as implementing a small vehicle registration fee for local drivers. Local leaders are working to find green infrastructure dollars through CalTrans programs (streets are a major contributor to polluted stormwater runoff.) Many cities have or are contemplating on-site capture requirements for construction permits to ensure that runoff will be lessened with future construction and re-development.

So while smart stormwater management does not often get the public support it needs, many of California’s local stormwater leaders understand what is at stake for their constituents, and are creating example programs that others can emulate. Here’s hoping that those programs prove their value and expand, and that the good water quality results are reflected in future Testing the Waters beach reports.


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