GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

San Diego stormwater management: public comment period is almost over

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 22, 2011

In late July with everything warming up, stormwater management may not be a high priority in the minds of many San Diegans but it’s probably not a bad time to be thinking about it since there aren’t flood emergencies to deal with.

Stormwater generated from our urban and suburban environment is a great challenge in many respects, but as observed in a report by the National Research Council, nearly all stormwater problems result from the loss of water-retaining and evapotranspirating functions of the soil and vegetation in the urban landscape:

“In an undeveloped area, rainfall typically infiltrates into the ground surface or is evapotranspirated by vegetation. In the urban landscape, these processes of evapotranspiration and water retention in the soil are diminished, such that stormwater flows rapidly across the land surface and arrives at the stream channel in short, concentrated bursts of high discharge. This transformation of the hydrologic regime is a wholesale reorganization of the processes of runoff generation, and it occurs throughout the developed landscape. When combined with the introduction of pollutant sources that accompany urbanization (such as lawns, motor vehicles, domesticated animals, and industries), these changes in hydrology have led to water quality and habitat degradation in virtually all urban streams.” (page 5 from the book)

Stormwater rapidly funneled from upstream developed areas has an impact on Mission Valley which itself has become a tangle of roads, malls, and parking lots

Historically our urban stormwater management has been mostly about getting rainwater away from roads, buildings, parking lots, and other impermeable surfaces into creeks, pipes, and channels as quickly as possible.

Broader environmental impacts have not been not ignored but as a pragmatic budget-minded operation the City’s ability to address every issue has been tested as it develops its stormwater management plan. Whether the City can find more ways to control flooding but also to slow things down and allow more water to be naturally and usefully retained rather than discard it as quickly as possible remains to be seen.

The final meeting in the series of public forums on the City’s Master Storm Water System Maintenance Program was held yesterday evening at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitors Center. The forum consisted of a joint presentation by Jill Witkowski, Staff Attorney for San Diego Coastkeeper, and Bill Harris, Supervising Public Information Officer for the Transportation & Storm Water Department, each offering a slightly different perspective on the program.

(for an MSM look at the program see Mike Lee’s Union-Tribune report. See also this San Diego 6 overview)

The underlying goal, which everyone seemed to agree on, is for the City to get away from a short-term reactionary mode where flooding problems arise, ad-hoc projects are quickly drawn up, emergency permits arranged, and different things happen depending on who is in charge that particular year. Instead, the desired strategy is a twenty-year program that locks in an orderly process that generates perhaps 3-5 projects per year, is not disrupted by management and staff turnover, and incorporates the needs and interests of the community.

The challenge is to find a balance between long-term strategic objectives and site-specific project details.

Originally, a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) was prepared last year but a Recirculated PEIR had to be written because of a Coastkeeper legal appeal and additional information that developed after public review of the original PEIR.

Coastkeeper's Jill Witkowski and Stormwater's Bill Harris share the podium

After the presenters gave their overview and discussion with the audience ensued, one topic dominated: adequate, meaningful public participation in the future when specific project details would be developed.

In particular, Coastkeeper’s Witkowski pointed out that significant and meaningful public participation requirements have not been written into the document plan even though verbal pledges have been made to that effect. It’s not enough just to guarantee public access to information about upcoming projects, she said, but a process for responding to public feedback on those projects must also be documented.

Bill Harris acknowledged the plan needs to incorporate such language and asked for patience saying that the issue definitely needs attention and language will be written in. As the meeting continued, some individuals expressed lingering uncertainty about that documentation happening, while Harris expressed equal certainty that those desired changes will be made.

Seeing these people interact in the same room my sense was that the members of San Diego Coastkeeper and staff in the Stormwater Department are smart people who have engaged in sincere and constructive dialog with a great deal of mutual respect. I was a little startled to see a Coastkeeper publicity blurb suggesting the plan was designed “to avoid public input and prohibit neighbors from challenging projects” but I heard nothing quite that strong at the meeting. Indeed, Witkowski praised the overall plan and said it represented “a great step forward.”

After the comment period closes, it will take 4-6 weeks to read, digest, and write responses to the comments. The hope is then to place it on the City Council docket, perhaps at their October 25 meeting.

There’s not much time left for public comment. July 29 is the deadline for comments to be accepted for review and response. Comments must focus on the new issues in the Recirculated PEIR; no reponses will be made to issues from the original PEIR.

Even if you’re strongly interested in stormwater issues, it might be daunting to read the entire Recirculated PEIR and figure out where you might contribute worthwhile comments. You may not find time for all the apendixes, but perhaps scan the report and read through the responses to the original PEIR comments. Also, if you’re up for some nitty gritty, read on for extra perspective from both sides.

A San Diego Coastkeeper handout at the meeting outlined its view of the situation:

July 29, 2011: Last day to comment on “Program Environmental Impact Report” 1300 pages, 45 day comment period.

Fall 2011: City Council hearing to approve environmental documents and “Master” site development permit for 115 creeks and channels.

If approved, annual process:

  • City Stormwater staff develops “list” of channels for upcoming year. Presents list and previous year’s report to community planning groups and to City Council’s Natural Resources & Culture Committee
  • City Stormwater staff prepares individual maintenance plans. Hydrology, water quality, noise, historical, mitigation
  • City Stormwater staff sends detailed plans to City Development Services Department for approval
  • Development Services uses Substantial Conformance Review checklist to determine if new, greater impacts in environmental review for program

If no and NOT in Coastal Zone, then Process One = DSD approval. “Courtesy” public notice to community planning group in area; no public comment period, no hearing, no appeal process.

If no, but in Coastal Zone, then Process Two = DSD approval. Notice of future decision to community planning group and residents within 300 feet; DSD decision made within 11 days of mailing notice (can extend to 30 days if CPC requests extension before decision is made); Notice of decision to people who request it no later than 2 days after decision date; residents/CPC can appeal to Planning Commission if appeal within 12 days after decision.

If greater/new environmental impacts, then Process Four = Planning Commission Hearing. Notice of application to CPC and residents within 300 feet plus those who request notice; Planning Commission hearing where public can weigh in on the projects; Appeal to City Council within 10 days of Planning Commission decision.

The City’s draft PEIR has this take on the situation:

“Although the Master Program has been amended to require hydrology and hydraulic studies be completed for each of the individual storm water facilities at the time maintenance is proposed, some of the members of the public are expected to insist that hydrology and hydraulic studies be completed for all of the storm water facilities before adoption of the Master Program. In addition, members of the public are expected to insist that detailed maintenance plans be identified prior to approval of the Master Program and PEIR to assure that the impacts are adequately anticipated.”

In response to concerns expressed regarding maintenance in open space, the City’s Storm Water Division (SWD) removed many of the storm water facilities within open space where maintenance was not likely to be required. As a result, the number of miles of storm water facilities included in the Master Program was reduced from 50 to 32 miles. In addition, SWD has determined that the estimates of disturbance width in the original PEIR was over conservative. With the reduction in the number of storm water facilities combined with the reduced disturbance width assumptions, the impact to wetlands within the City’s jurisdiction would be reduced by approximately 43 percent (30 acres) when compared to the original Master Program. Nevertheless, some members of the public are expected to request further reductions in the number of facilities to be maintained under the Master Program.

Concerns are likely to continue to be expressed regarding alternatives to the proposed maintenance. Although the City’s DSD staff believe that a reasonable range of alternatives is presented in this PEIR, members of the public are expected to contend that other alternatives exist to the proposed project.

Water quality is also expected to continue to be a concern of the public. Although the water quality discussion has been expanded in the PEIR, members of the public are expected to take the position that the water quality impacts are understated and that additional mitigation should be proposed.

In addition, the public has expressed a desire to have more involvement in reviewing annual maintenance proposals which are required as part of the Master Program. In meeting with these individuals and groups, the City has cited specific CEQA statues and guidelines and San Diego Municipal Code regulations to support their determination that annual maintenance activities that are explicitly identified in the Master Program and adequately addressed in the Final PEIR can be approved in reliance upon the certified Final PEIR. As described in Subchapter 1.6 of this PEIR, pursuant to Section 15168(c) of the CEQA Guidelines, the certified Final PEIR would satisfy CEQA requirements for subsequent maintenance activities if no new effects could occur, no new mitigation measures would be required, and all feasible mitigation measures or alternatives identified in the PEIR will be implemented. Despite the legal grounds for maintaining that no new environmental document is required for annual maintenance plans covered within the scope of the Master Program and adequately described by the PEIR, members of the public are expected to push for such review regardless of the provisions of CEQA.”

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