Environment Report: The High Cost of Getting Rid of Water

Science/Environment

Environment Report: The High Cost of Getting Rid of Water

The stormwater deficit is shedding light on what global climate change costs San Diegans.

An ocean outfall at Sunset Cliffs in San Diego / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer

If the cost of consuming water wasn’t high enough in San Diego, consider the cost of getting rid of it.

As Andy Keatts detailed in a story Monday, San Diego has a huge infrastructure backlog and half of the unfunded projects over the next five years involve fixing the stormwater system. To cover the estimated $1.27 billion bill, Council members are thinking about adding a new tax for voters to weigh in 2022, or charging every home about $1 a month as a fee, according to the Union-Tribune.

Quick clarifier: Stormwater comes from rain hitting the ground. Wastewater comes from your toilet. Two different sets of pipes. The stormwater pipes are important because they give that rainwater a place to go instead of pooling in streets or yards, causing floods.

The main driver of the ballooning cost, the city says, is that the stormwater pipes are just old and need fixing more often.

But as I reported about a year ago, the stormwater system is also particularly effed by impending climate change — the planet warming more quickly than we currently know how to handle.

Though the city calculated how much more water San Diego would see from swelling seas, it said at the time it hadn’t calculated the cost.

Whether it’s addressed with a tax or a fee or something else, the stormwater deficit is shedding light on what global climate change costs San Diegans.

Let’s tie the pieces together.

By 2030, with just 1 foot of sea level rise, almost 10 percent of the pumps that help drain stormwater could be compromised. And over a quarter of ocean outfalls — the pipes that stick out of the cliff face to drain storm runoff — will be too, according to the city’s Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Report. That’s when seas are calm.

When there’s a storm and the seas swell, the number of pump stations that are in trouble jumps to 35 percent.

If you’re not an infrastructure nerd like me, you probably don’t pay much attention when driving by a pump station or walking past an outfall at the beach, unless it’s draining gross water over your head. None of it is cheap.

Huntington Beach bid out a stormwater pump station replacement in 2018 at an estimated cost of $2.8 million. Back in 2010, San Diego planned to spend $3.5 million to improve pump stations in Mission Beach and Pacific Beach that had failed during a torrential winter rainstorm.

San Diego’s rainstorms are only going to become more intense and less predictable, like a bad relationship putting further strain on its already injured state.

Southern California is the moodiest place in the continental United States when you compare its climate from year to year, according to California’s Fourth Climate Assessment. Scientists call this “climate variability.” Over the past two decades, SoCal experienced unusually wet years, with 35 inches of rain, and extremely dry rainless years, with just 5 inches. That likely makes it hard for the city to plan for stormwater long term.

And scientists predict the San Diego region’s relationship with its rain will only become more volatile. The planet’s rapid warming means water is acting out in ways we’re not used to. It’s pushing streams of tropical wetness through the sky (I really like the Climate Assessment’s description of “long thin ephemeral filaments”) in what are known as atmospheric rivers. Our wettest days in San Diego could get 25-30 percent worse depending on how fast we warm up the planet with fossil fuel use, scientists predict.

This isn’t a relationship San Diego can just ghost. It will have to adapt.

Unfortunately, San Diego’s set of stone and steel stormwater infrastructure is a woman set in her ways, inflexible to change by her very nature. Put another way, the city’s sea level rise report shows that, of all its infrastructure, the stormwater system is at high risk of failure under future climate change scenarios. But, in terms of our ability to fortify against those impending risks, it’s a system that’s not very adaptable to climate change.

That probably means we’ll have to rethink the system, rip infrastructure out of the ground and move it inland where it’s safe from waves. And, bada bing, there’s your billion-dollar deficit.

In Other News

  • Something for the kids: Sherman Heights Community Center is accepting third through eighth grade students in a science and culture program where they get free science kits on a biweekly basis and lessons by local science researchers.
  • The progressive Yes! Magazine explores the term “solarpunk” and other emerging climate terms the kids are using these days to envision a world where we live low to the ground in fantastical foliage cities frosted with trees. The term popped up a few years ago on scifi novelist Charles Stross’ blog in a post about San Diego County’s quest to neutralize its carbon emissions. So that’s weird.
  • ­Your next chance to weigh in on the city’s second try to hash out a better franchise agreement with its power provider is Feb. 15. (Union-Tribune)
  • I’ll be hosting a debate dubbed “Power Struggle” for League of Women Voters about the franchise agreement between San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate and community organizer Derek Casady Feb. 24. Register here.
  • A 91-year-old San Diegan and Navy meteorologist lost his wallet in Antarctica 53 years ago and got it back recently. It’s unclear how many beer rations were left unused on his punch card from the Antarctic station bar. (Union-Tribune)
  • Carlsbad is adding sand to its beaches from a lagoon dredging project. Some portions of the beach are dangerously narrow due to erosion. (Union-Tribune)
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