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    Having learned its lessons years ago that it is best to lay out just how much money trouble it faces, the city of San Diego is warning investors it will have to come up with nearly $4 billion over two decades to comply with regulations on how it handles stormwater runoff.

    In its newly released Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, city officials are acknowledging they can’t see any way to comply with clean water requirements that does not involve up to $3.96 billion in new costs through 2031. That’s up from $2.7 billion the city told investors it may have to pay in July.

    Scott Lewis on Politics LogoCity representatives said they finally have clarity on how stringent pollution regulators would set conditions on the city to comply with the Clean Water Act — and the price tag is enormous.

    The money will have to come from the same fund that pays for police, fire protection, parks and other core services. And the compliance will also require private builders to step up their game as well, increasing construction costs.


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    City officials have been talking about the issue but haven’t presented the long-term problem this starkly in a warning to investors who might purchase city debt. The city has finally learned the full extent of a new pollution permit it received in May from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

    Essentially, the federal government, the state and this regional agency are interpreting the Clean Water Act and forcing the city and many others to overhaul how they control for water pollution. The city will have to modify most of the buildings and public assets it owns, while passing on tough new regulations to private developers as well.

    The city’s five-year financial outlook released in November forecast that the city would need to spend $882 million through 2019 to comply.

    “These expenditures are mostly unfunded through FY 2019 and there is not a current plan to fully fund these requirements,” the five-year outlook warned. Andrea Tevlin, the City Council’s independent budget analyst, said the city does not know how it will come up with about $547 million of that.

    The money will likely have to come from the city’s general fund.

    “Every street will have to become a green street,” said Bill Harris, a city spokesman on water issues.

    I asked Tevlin how this obligation compares to long-term financial liabilities like what we owe on city employee pensions and health care. “It’s on the same level,” she said.

    Unlike pensions, however, a regulatory agency can force the city to act or pay dearly. If the city does not reduce the bacteria entering local waters by a specific amount by 2018, for instance, the Regional Water Quality Control Board could force San Diego to pay a fines of $10,000 per day. The city might also expose itself to lawsuits.

    Tevlin said the stormwater liability will have to be part of any discussion about a new megabond proposal — the infrastructure investment and potential tax increase interim mayor Todd Gloria highlighted in his State of the City address.

    “Yes, there are many other needs in the city but this could lead to fines and penalties so it has to be a priority,” she said.

    City officials think they might be able to avoid some of this cost but they’re being very cautious.

    “These numbers can only go down,” Harris said. “The city is working with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to refine the measurement requirements included in the permit in hopes of adopting different ways of determining what level of pollution a watershed can tolerate. It is possible that we could shave hundreds of millions off our compliance costs. Nonetheless, the city is still looking at a multibillion-dollar potential cost for stormwater compliance over the next 20 years.”

    And nobody knows where they’ll find the money.

      This article relates to: Government, Infrastructure, News, Politics, Pollution in Public Places, Scott Lewis on Politics, Share

      Written by Scott Lewis

      I'm Scott Lewis, the editor in chief of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it's a blast!): @vosdscott.

      25 comments
      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      We will see what the coming week "significant rain event" will bring but if it is in fact big everyone should pay attention to any flooding and understand that any "water sequestration plans" should include adequate drainage as a safety valve.

      You can only sequester so much on a property. Above that it is called flood damage. If you have never witnessed a "significant rain event" in San Diego It can be an eye opener.

      It does happen. Not often but it does.

      We get another miracle March and I believe that need for a drainage "safety valve" in any plan will be obvious.



      Ryan Housman
      Ryan Housman

      Affordable or not; modern society is responsible for the products (and, byproducts, in this case) of it's existence.

      Our storm-water system is medieval! Think about everything that goes down our street/storm-water drains without any filtration (other than maybe a grate) before dumping directly into the ocean: oil, soap from a car wash, grime from automobiles, cigarettes, random trash, etc. There is no excuse for us to have built the infrastructure to handle the runoff of our society without eliminating it's toxic elements. Without action, irreversible damage will be done to the only earth we have and we will all end up reaping the consequences of a lack of action in this regard.

      "Construction costs?" I read: Construction jobs.

      'Can't pay for it?' Irrelevant. My message to the city financial planners: Figure it out.

      ...and, this fiscal alarmist concern is only in reaction to complying with the MINIMUM standards. We should, as a society, aspire to be better than that.

      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      So all the city has to do is find 200 million extra a year for the next 20 years.
      Guess the Megabond just more mega.

      Kevin Swanson
      Kevin Swanson subscribermember

      Gee - and you don't even mention the pollution bill that is coming due for the Point Loma Waste Treatment Plant as one of the many other shoes that will drop. "Told you so" at City Council hearings last year. Too bad no one wants to hear solutions

      Chris Wood
      Chris Wood subscriber

      Er…What stormwater?

      Silvia
      Silvia

      The specific issue is the level of bacteria being dumped in the ocean. It's the white elephant in the room, yet no one what to address it, has any one walked on 9th and Ash and not been bowled over by the the stench of dog urine and feces? Dog owners should have to register, pay dog license fees and be restricted from using our streets as a toilet bowl. All the waste eventually is washed into the storm drain system leading directly into the bay. The levels of bacteria is in direct proportion to the number of dogs permitted to defecate and urinate in the public street. There are many products on the market that allow pets to relieve themselves at home.

      Ryan Housman
      Ryan Housman

      that's just a tiny piece of a huge problem with the irresponsible manner in how we have heretofore failed to address our society's toxic runoff/waste.

      Bill Bradshaw
      Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

      What about the Sea Lion and Harbor Seal urine and feces that periodically wash into our near shore waters?

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      There's no need to make it a tax. Since storm drains run along streets, properties with longer street frontage benefit more from storm drains than properties with shorter street frontage. Since we've based our society on the idea that a person who benefits the most from something should pay the most, wouldn't a fee proportional to street frontage, levied on (and only on) property owners, be the most efficient and equitable way to pay for the storm drains?

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      Street frontage doesn't increase the cost per property, it increases the cost per street. The city owns the street.

      If you have a large lot, even with lots of street frontage, you might have no run off due to no street drainage, the guy next to you might have a very narrow frontage but it's all paved and slopes toward the street and has massive runoff.

      I understand you hate cars but again, lets use some common sense here.

      RWSURF
      RWSURF

      Other jurisdictions are considering implementing a fee/tax based on a property's "effective impermeable surface area", which is the impermeable surface area minus an allowance for a property's ability to retain/infiltrate stormwater.

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      "Since storm drains run along streets, properties with longer street frontage benefit more from storm drains than properties with shorter street frontage."

      Nope, since a longer street front gives the property more ability to absorb the drainage without storm drains.

      And anyway, the issue isn't the storm drains themselves, it's the runoff that goes down them.

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      "Nope, since a longer street front gives the property more ability to absorb the drainage without storm drains."

      Two properties with identical acreage but differing lengths of street front are identical in their ability to absorb drainage. Therefore, street frontage is not relevant in a property's ability to absorb drainage.

      "And anyway, the issue isn't the storm drains themselves, it's the runoff that goes down them."

      The issue is the cost per property of the storm drains, which is proportional to the property's street frontage. Yes, it's also proportional to the area of the property that is impermeable, and inversely proportional to the area of the property that is impermeable. Maybe those two aspects can be factored in to the property's storm drain fee.

      jcb12155
      jcb12155

      id like to know why this has to be funded out of the city's general fund? in most cities/governmental entitities that run water & sewer svcs are known as "enterprise funds" within the govt or are just outright independent agencies (for bonding/capital) and called things like authority, agency, district, commission, etc and are funded by user fees & these fees generally fund the entire budgets (operating & capital/bond budgets) of the said agencies.

      why r general fund taxes being used to fund this rather than increasing water and/or sewer rates?

      David Crossley
      David Crossley subscriber

      Why are general funds being used? Probably because over the years, some water and sewer fees made their way into the general fund.

      Bill Bradshaw
      Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

      Don't worry, be happy. Your water/sewer fees are going up big time as well, regardless of how much water you use. This should make you absolutely ecstatic.

      By the way, we use the "enterprise fund" approach here in San Diego, and you'd be amazed how enterprising the bureaucrats can be. I seem to recall they had a great "bonus" scheme going at taxpayer expense for a while, rewarding most of their employees for just being there.

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      Gosh, pay $20 mill in fines over the next 5 years while you work to get the right, reasonable people into the federal agencies (hint: not liberals) to get a waiver, or pay around $500 million tearing up the city and building stormwater runoff treatment ponds (Hint: if you are SDUSD edumicated $500 million is a lot more than $20 million).

      Which one makes the most sense?

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      Sure, everyone knows that if your shtick is wacko environmentalist you are just as likely to be a republican as a democrat. What the heck was I thinking?

      Chris Brewster
      Chris Brewster subscribermember

      Mr. Jones: What I am suggesting is that over the years, it appears that this has been a bipartisan issue.

      Jim Jones
      Jim Jones subscriber

      Hate to break it to you Chris but the CWA was itself a change to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and it already has changed many times since signed into law, it was signed in 72, revised in 77, 81 and 87, and changed by other laws more than I can count, including the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

      But it doesn't even need a change, all it needs is someone appointed to the EPA that is reasonable about water, and that someone would more likely have an R than a D behind their name.

      Or we can devote a couple years of tax revenue in their entirety to this make believe issue.

      Chris Brewster
      Chris Brewster subscribermember

      I think delays are what have made this so expensive. I doubt the Clean Water Act will changed under liberals or conservatives. After all, it was enacted over 40 years ago with heavy bipartisan support, including the bipartisan override of a veto by President Nixon.

      Oscar Ramos
      Oscar Ramos subscribermember

      So the stormwater runoff will cost $4 billion
      The megabond for streets, etc. will be nearly $1 billion
      How much will be required to address all of Balboa Park's needs, given its deterioration? A couple hundred million?
      If we add in our pension debts and bond repayments for the Convention Center, Petco, and other projects, what is the grand total? I would love to see these obligations, compared to our revenue streams, together in a graphic.

      David Crossley
      David Crossley subscriber

      But...but...our budget is balanced. The city said so.

      susanf
      susanf subscribermember

      a thump on the head a big *pffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffft* to all the idiots who have known about this for decades and didn't do anything about it.

      Mark Giffin
      Mark Giffin subscribermember

      Urban Drool is set to become part of the San Diiego's vernacular.

      http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/may/15/storm-water-permit-urban-runoff-pollution/
      Storm water permit brings 'sea of change'http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/may/15/storm-water-permit-urban-runoff-pollution/Wiping out the "urban drool" of San Diego's runoff will demand big adjustments from city residents, the city's deputy storm water chief told council members Wednesday. "All of us will be required to change the way we use water," to comply with a new ...