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Storm Drains: The City's Next Big Financial Drain

Astronomical numbers from a new report punctuate a long-running tension over whether to chip away at the backlog of broken infrastructure or build new things residents need.

In the next five years, the city of San Diego will have to increase its spending on stormwater projects an average of $164 million annually, more than it costs to run its park and library systems combined.

To help pay for this, the city could increase homeowners’ monthly stormwater fees by more than 1,000 percent, though any increase would require a public vote. If the city doesn’t find the money, it could face up to $37,500 in daily fines every time it pollutes the ocean.

“That’s a little sobering,” City Councilman David Alvarez said Wednesday after hearing a report with all these numbers.

The astronomical figures punctuate a long-running tension for the city over whether to chip away at the backlog of broken infrastructure or build new things residents need.

But unlike San Diego’s roads, which continue to deteriorate, and emergency response times, which still fall short of city goals, a failure to invest in stormwater projects could lead to a direct hit to the city’s pocketbook through lawsuits and state and federal fines.

New, more stringent regulations from the region’s water quality control board detail the amount of pollution allowed to flow from the city’s stormdrain system into the ocean – including from rain, people washing their cars and debris from creeks.

The city’s price tag includes the costs of repairing stormdrain pipes, but also from more frequent street sweeping and even buying land to collect pollutants before they’re washed into the system.

The stormwater department argues that if it doesn’t begin to ramp up spending now, it can’t possibly meet water quality mandates by the time many go into effect in 2018. The city has known the new regulations were coming for a while – former Mayor Jerry Sanders batted around trying to hike stormwater fees – but ultimately no one took any major steps toward dealing with it. The city’s projecting it will cost $2.7 billion over the next 17 years to comply with the rules.

“The thinking was, it’s in the future and it’s such a ridiculous cost, it can’t be correct,” said Seth Gates, a co-author of the report for the city’s independent budget analyst. “It’s on us now, and our staff is saying this is the cost for compliance. People still can’t believe it.”

To be sure, the numbers could represent a worst-case scenario. Stormwater officials told a City Council committee on Wednesday that they’re negotiating with the water quality board to make some of the regulations less stringent. For instance, changes to how metal pollution is calculated in Chollas Creek, which runs through City Heights, southeastern San Diego and Barrio Logan, could lower overall costs by $800 million, officials said.

The city is, however, beginning to take these numbers seriously. In its most recent bond issue, the city told investors that rising stormwater costs were a risk to its financial stability.

Ways to pay for all this have their drawbacks. Any increase to stormwater fees would require a majority vote of all property owners or two-thirds of the general electorate. The city could continue to borrow money for upgrades, but that would compete with money for street and building repairs and cost a lot more when spread out over decades. Cash from the day-to-day budget would compete with police, fire, library hours and other regular government services.

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