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San Diego’s Biggest Infrastructure Need Isn’t Streets — It’s Storm Drains

Trash lies in a storm water channel that empties onto Tourmaline Surfing Park...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: Trash lies in a storm water channel that empties onto Tourmaline Surfing Park in northern Pacific Beach, June 25, 2018.

Underneath San Diego streets lies a network of pipes and tunnels that most people never see. But when it rains, that network is busy carrying water out from neighborhoods and into the city's rivers, bays and beaches.

Much of that network is on the verge of collapse, and the city has nowhere near enough money to fix it.

A report from the City Auditor's Office released this month notes a staggering $459 million funding shortfall for stormwater infrastructure. The unfunded needs for stormwater are greater than any other type of infrastructure in the city, including streets, streetlights, sidewalks, bridges, parks or fire stations.

"(The audit) recognized that this city had done very little in the last 20 years, both to educate the public about the lack of funding for stormwater infrastructure and to actually do something about it," said Matt O'Malley, chief executive of the nonprofit San Diego Coastkeeper, which advocates for clean water.

The consequences of the city failing to fund its stormwater needs are serious: Stormwater pipe failures have caused flooding, sinkholes and property damage, sometimes resulting in lawsuits. Their emergency repairs are costly.

Kris Arciaga ,

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Also at stake is San Diego's compliance with clean water regulations. On the journey through streets, pipes and channels, stormwater picks up a host of bacteria and other pollutants. That dirty water ultimately ends up in the city's waterways, and can sometimes cause human illness. Excessive pollution can result in fines, ultimately shouldered by the taxpayer.

"There's many people who get sick just from swimming in our beaches," O'Malley said. "It's sort of a big hidden secret in San Diego that our waterways are not nearly as clean as they should be."

The audit, which was heard by the City Council's Audit Committee on Wednesday, does acknowledge some efficiencies and cost savings city staffers have undertaken. The Storm Water Division's in-house pipe repair crew has managed to extend the life of some failing stormwater pipes by installing pipelining, and by proactively repairing some pipes.

"We're very pleased with the audit and its findings, largely because the findings are just a continuation of a lot of strategies and program improvements that we've already put in place," said Drew Kleis, deputy director of the city's Storm Water Division.

Kleis also said San Diego has a much clearer picture of its stormwater needs than most other cities. San Diego's Watershed Asset Management Plan helps guide which locations are in most urgent need of repair or replacement. The federal Environmental Protection Agency used the plan as a case study for how other cities could assess their own stormwater infrastructure needs.

But despite all the city's efforts, the audit finds city leaders have consistently been warned of the lack of funding for stormwater infrastructure, but have failed to come up with a long-term funding strategy.

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In their response to the audit, city officials agreed to complete a long-term funding plan for stormwater — but they gave themselves a deadline of January 2021. That is much too late for a potential ballot measure that would give voters the option of raising fees or taxes to help close the funding gap.

Kleis said the deadline was set for after the city finishes negotiations with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board on its latest set of standards for reaching compliance with clean water rules. He said the city is hoping it can negotiate rules that will lower the cost of compliance.

"I think the most important point is that the picture of what our funding needs will be is likely to evolve, and it will change," Kleis said. "And hopefully downward, in a downward direction."

O'Malley said the city has waited long enough for a sustainable funding strategy for stormwater infrastructure. Still, he blames elected officials — not city staffers — for failing to come up with a solution.

"Stormwater is a hidden infrastructure project, it's not very sexy," O'Malley said. "No one has really stepped up to be the champion for stormwater and for clean water in our region."

The shortfall in funding for stormwater infrastructure in San Diego is worse than it is for streets, bridges, sidewalks or fire stations. The existing network of underground pipes is failing — and the city has nowhere near enough money to fix it.

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