Despite our lofty Clean Water Act goals and public service announcements, California waters aren’t just failing to improve, they’re getting worse. The logical conclusion – indeed the only conclusion – should be: Whatever it is we’re doing, it isn’t working.

Although our focus of late has been the supply of drinking water (which is great), we can’t forget this other part of the equation. Rather, as we continue to deplete our water supply, we can follow the trickle (or torrent) of excessive irrigation to our local storm water system.

What was once perfectly clean water flows through this intricate system of natural drainages, constructed channels, storm drains, pipes, street gutters, and catch basins to the ocean. This storm water system was constructed to convey storm water. But we don’t have too many storms in San Diego, so the majority of the time the storm water system moonlights as an ecosystem. Many of the storm water channels are parts of our natural drainage system, while most others have evolved into wetlands with the help of near-constant dry weather flows (ie. over-irrigation). Some people still refer to them as rivers, streams, wetlands and creeks. How often does the storm water system actually convey storm water? Not often, it turns out.

If we look at the historical average from 1914 to today, San Diego sees about 22 days a year where rainfall is greater than a tenth of an inch. The Regional Water Board considers this amount of rain “wet weather.” San Diego has around 30-40 days of wet weather a year, which leaves somewhere around 320 dry weather days in a year. So 88 percent of the time, our storm water system doesn’t have anything to do with storms, and has everything to do with nature.

Environmentalists are eternally frustrated by this reality, knowing the storm water system should more appropriately be called the urban runoff system. Nonetheless, we saw an opportunity in 2005, when the City sent notice that it would be looking at establishing a program to maintain this storm water system. We foolishly thought this meant the City would come up with a plan to improve water quality by reducing pollutant loads and “maintaining” the eco part of the system.

Instead of a plan to maintain our watersheds, we received a plan to dredge and bulldoze our natural drainage channels. This is the City’s maintenance plan for 20 years. Naturally, environmental groups have been seriously opposed to his plan. But our disappointment will likely reach its culmination next Monday, when the City is set to approve this master program.

Many City Council members, seem to have focused on the purported goal of the maintenance program: to reduce flooding of the storm water system by clearing the channels. They, understandably, are worried about possible damage to property that might result from flooding. But what the City Council should be wondering, just as environmentalists have been since the plan was released, is how this will stop flooding. And at what cost? If the storm water system (remember it’s comprised of natural ecosystems too) doesn’t actually convey storms for almost 90 percent of the year, is our best approach to reduce flooding really dredging the channels, removing sediment and plants year after year?

The majority of the year these channels help improve water quality by slowing down dry weather flows (ie. your lawn dribble) and naturally ridding them of pollutants (ie. your fertilizer and paint chips). Heal the Bay’s latest Annual Beach Report Card highlights this fact:

The disparity between dry and wet weather water quality continues to be dramatic, thereby demonstrating that California is not successfully reducing stormwater runoff pollution.

The storm water system is also home to a variety of birds, wildlife, and little creatures that, while not cute enough to be the mascot of anti-climate change campaigns, are important nonetheless. To prevent flooding, however, the City has opted not to widen channels, divert flows, or implement development techniques that result in retention of storm water onsite (and improve water quality). Instead, it has chosen to double down on five wet weeks a year, clearing out lilies and bluebirds for those potential floods.

What’s worse, in many of these areas, even after the City performs its “maintenance” activities, flooding will still occur. The problem with this approach and lack of foresight is that it ensures history will repeat itself. Sure, clearing a channel might make flooding a little less likely for a year or two, maybe five, but it will still happen; we’ve guaranteed that by paving over nearly everything in sight.

This is an opportunity to improve water quality and to truly plan for the future. This document will guide the City for twenty years. If we resign ourselves to the same shortsighted, ineffective, environmentally damaging practices until 2031 because 10 percent of the year it rains a tenth of an inch, we’ve got some serious work to do. And it’s not dredging.

Livia Borak is an attorney at Coast Law Group, LLP in Encinitas where she focuses on a variety of environmental issues representing various non-profit organizations. She’s a former San Diego Coastkeeper staff attorney and member of the third-place CityBeat Trivia night team By Rolland’s Beard. She serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters and is legal advisor to the environmental nonprofit Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation. She makes killer chocolate chip vegan cookies.

by Livia Borak

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