Preventing Pointless Pollution

by Carolyn Chase


n 1998, there were 13 General Advisories issued by the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health warning beachgoers to avoid recreating in waters located near discharging storm drains, river mouths or lagoons for 72 hours after a rainfall. Beaches such as Ocean Beach, Windansea, Tourmaline and La Jolla Shores were considered a health risk for recreational water users at least 59 days in 1998. These numbers do not include days when beaches were posted closed due to sewage spills.

Mission Bay, Famosa Slough, Chollas Creek, San Diego Bay, Tecolote Creek and storm drain areas along the shoreline are designated by the State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "impaired" water bodies. Impaired water bodies are those for which required pollution controls including effluent limitations or best management practices (BMPs), are not effective enough to meet the standards of the federal Clean Water Act. In simplest terms, impaired water bodies do not regularly meet the basic standards for "fishable and swimmable waters."

Reports from the City testing of storm drain effluent have noted that, "All of the storm water runoff samples have exceeded water quality limits for human water contact during rain events." Moreover, the City's coastal storm-drain water monitoring results measured since 1996 (both dry and wet weather flows) indicate a high level of exceedences at the outfall throughout the year. Is should also be noted that the results of the City's 97/98 wet-weather monitoring program also show that "water quality exceedences occurred for total copper, lead, and zinc at mass loading stations."

In February of this year, S.T.O.P (Surfers Tired of Pollution), San Diego Baykeeper, Environmental Health Coalition and the San Diego Sierra Club held a joint press conference and identified obstacles and solutions for dealing with polluted runoff in the City of San Diego.

A number of obstacles were identified.

Enforcement activities rely on voluntary compliance. In 1998, there were more than 900 complaints of illegal discharges reported to the City. According to the San Diego Waste Discharge Compliance Report, fewer than five out of those 900 were referred to the City Attorney's Office for investigation. Much of this can be attributed to a lack of staffing. For budget purposes, the City is estimating that they would need staffing for 1100 cases to actually investigate the complaints to determine any additional action.

Monetary penalties for polluters are rarely, if ever, imposed. This leads to a culture where the costs of pollution are low and therefore pollution can become a rational choice.

The Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program lacks adequate staff to implement effective pollution prevention measures and provide enforcement accountability for the community.

The City's Land Development Code fails to address the control, prevention, reduction or treatment of polluted runoff. The City has admitted that the pending "Zoning Code Update" would result in an increase of polluted runoff. Unfortunately, they did not include provisions to control the volume or pollutant tolerance levels of runoff from urban areas.

In the wake of budget deliberations, now is the time to consider the solutions. The City Council is holding its budget deliberations this week. The public can submit their comments to their city council offices by phone, mail, fax or via the city's website. Ask them to adequately fund the storm water pollution prevention program.

Some solutions are proposed in a recent city report discussing the "Budget Alternatives for the Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program." This analysis estimates that, with increased staffing, enforcement could lead to an additional $450,000 of revenue annually.

You know, I really wish people would voluntarily stop polluting. But the record demonstrates that mandatory minimum penalties induce compliance. With the City expecting 1,100 reported incidents next year, their feel-good voluntary approach is wishful thinking. Where minimum penalties for serious water quality violations have been mandated by law, the number of illegal discharges has dropped significantly, in some places by as much as 60%.

Along with increased enforcement, the City should proactively move to add a polluted runoff control provision to its Land Development Code. A new municipal storm water permit is going to be issued by the California Water Quality Control Board later this year in their next attempt to ensure private developers, contractors and other businesses comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Local governmental entities will finally be required to incorporate storm water pollution prevention measures into their land-use planning for new development and redevelopment. According to the Regional Board, this area has great potential for long-term pollution prevention and reduction.

The City should get a jump on this process and become proactive in its pollution prevention measures instead of dragging its feet, ignoring pollution, and just hoping somehow it will voluntarily disappear. It voluntarily disappears all right - right into the environment, on to our beaches and into our bays.

There are many known measures that can be adopted now including: standards and design criteria for new development such as minimization of imperviousness by use of porous building materials, maintenance of pre-construction runoff rates after development, maximization of open space and required installation of treatment control devices; require applicants to implement BMPs to reduce storm water pollution, to allow for governmental site inspections and enforcement of BMPs and to allow for verification of proper storm water permits.

You will see many of these features already being adopted in the smarter projects in San Diego including Black Mountain Ranch and Pacific Highlands Ranch, that were both approved by the voters to be built north of SR-56.

Other opportunities?

Include Water Quality Element as part of the General Plan update process.

Release to the public yearly water quality monitoring reports that include a list of locations of all water monitoring sites and a summary of all the results for both wet and dry weather.

Direct that administrative fines from enforcement are applied to the storm water program itself and not into the General Fund. The Council must ensure that storm drain fees (collected as part of our bi-monthly water bills) are used for pollution prevention, education and enforcement, not just for building bigger drains for more pollution.

Finally, the City should reconcile its Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program budget reports against its Waste Discharge Compliance Reports, as formally requested by S.T.O.P in April. Is it too much to ask the city to write their reports in a manner that a college-educated person can figure out? When bureaucrats make it hard to follow the money, you know it's worth following.