Pollution culture

by Carolyn Chase


The State Regional Water Quality Control Board in an attempt to further regulate and change the practices that have led to persistent water pollution has finally issued a new Municipal Stormwater Permit.

After reading the official written comments of both the city and county, I can't help but wonder if the staff opinion is that it's actually impossible to bring beach and storm water pollution under control.

The city's 35-page, legalistic comments to the regional board on the permit can be summarized as follows:

We'd really like to improve water quality, but it's really, really hard. We can't afford it. (The city repeatedly states how "unpredictable" funding can be, how difficult it is to obtain.) We need more time (despite the fact that the existing permit expired in 1995). We may not even have the authority to prevent or enforce water quality ourselves in the city (despite polls that show 85 percent of voters want someone to do it). The State Regional Board lacks the legal authority to get us to do a lot of the stuff you want us to do (the official way of saying -- you can't make us).

The words "flexibility" and "discretion" are demanded over and over again, as in the city deserves more flexibility and more discretion in managing its water quality affairs. The city wants "more freedom to direct resources to those problems that deserve the highest priority."

The cities and county have had that freedom. They also have a list of "impaired water bodies" under the Clean Water Act, along with mounting lists of beach closures. You'd think these would have been clues that they should have been doing some things differently for a while now.

The city notes that it "cannot overstate the importance of cost effectiveness." Well, environmentalists and the public cannot overstate the importance of fishable and swimmable waters, yet it appears we continue to have to fight for it every turn.

Unfortunately, cost effectiveness for the city has, to this point, meant allowing a culture of pollution to prevail.

Politicians are in tough spot. Defending the city's legacy of pollution is no easy task and they must be given a chance. But if politicians are in a tough spot, consider the plight of the folks who want to use the water for recreation, not to mention the survival needs of wildlife.

Make no mistake, the permit is no panacea. But this should not -- at some level -- be about some permit and the evidently inevitable armies of taxpayer-funded attorneys churning out hundreds of pages of theoretical documents about what they don't have to do to deal with water pollution, while real efforts go begging.

The county's and city's comments align on some major "you can't make us" issues. The county has many ways of putting it: "there is no basis for imposing 'responsibilities' to protect water quality," "clear attempts to impose unfounded mandates," "no legal authority to impose numeric limitations ... nor to force jurisdictions to comply with water quality standards." Environmentalists and other concerned citizens are left asking: If it's not the local cities and county's "obligation" and the State Regional Water Quality Control Board doesn't have the authority to get jurisdictions to "comply with water quality standards," who the hell does?

No one is suggesting that long-standing water pollution problems can be solved overnight. We have spent the last 100 years designing cities that create water pollution. We have purposefully filled and eliminated wetlands and floodplains; we've narrowed, channelized and undergrounded creeks and streams. We have not required developments to be designed with our natural systems. We have not funded proper maintenance. Flexibility, by the way, is not usually a desirable thing when it comes to maintenance.

I sense there is very little comprehension that the way the city has been designed creates water pollution in dozens of ways. There is such a condition of tolerance and acceptance of water pollution in the city that it is barely conceived that we could really do something about it. The generic reaction is it costs too much, it's complicated and we're not sure changing our ways is going to help.

But we must stop believing that it's too big a problem to control. Yes, it will take time. It will cost money. But the problems must be solved.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau is finally acknowledging that having San Diego cited in Forbes magazine as having some of the most polluted beaches is not good for the economy.

What else can the region's local elected representatives pursue?

Here are some basic common sense items to start with:

  • Elected officials should reject projects with unmitigated water quality impacts. This would begin to send the messages the system requires to change. When project proponents can no longer get projects approved with negative water quality impacts, they will develop the cost-effective alternatives to improve their own behavior.
  • Jurisdictions should get their own house in order on their own lands. All public lands are currently managed by someone, and water quality objectives should be added to their training and job accountabilities.
  • Jurisdictions should prioritize the impaired water bodies and budget for plans to determine polluting sources and practices.
  • A "suggestion box" awards system should be established for ideas to reduce pollution or to increase pollution cleanup and prevention practices.

Independent of the politics and finer technical points of the permit process itself, the city quite simply needs an institutional attitude adjustment when it comes to water quality issues -- from all city crews, drivers, rangers, planners, engineers and managers all the way up to the city manager.

Mayor Dick Murphy, in his State of the City address Jan. 9, called for just that by stating: "Quite frankly, the city of San Diego needs a new attitude when it comes to water quality. We should view (the) Regional Water Quality Control Board permitting process as an opportunity to clean up our beaches and bays. We need to work with, not against, the Regional Water Quality Control Board in developing real solutions to our long-ignored water quality problems."

He also proposed some important initial steps: a draft clean water element to the City's General Plan, an Urban Stormwater Management Plan to reduce pollutants and runoff from new development, a comprehensive program that teaches pollution prevention techniques, and a financing plan to complete implementation of low-flow diversion projects.

He called for a City Clean Water Task Force co-chaired by Councilmember Scott Peters.

Perhaps the cities and the county wouldn't be facing such regulatory mandates if they had done more to get pollution under control without them. Methinks they whine too much. It's now time to get to work actually cleaning up some water somewhere.