GrokSurf's San Diego

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

San Diego storm drain fee poised to rise dramatically

Posted by George J Janczyn on October 21, 2013

A San Diego Independent Budget Analyst (IBA) report on the fiscal impact of new storm water regulations was delivered last Wednesday (October 16, 2013) to the city council’s Natural Resources and Culture (NR&C) Committee. While no action was taken at this meeting, the report left no doubt that the City is in serious need of new revenue (read: fees and taxes) to comply with the new regulations, for infrastructure, flood risk management activities, and deferred capital improvement projects for storm drain assets.

Earlier this year the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a new five-year municipal storm water sewer system permit. The so-called Regional MS4 Permit regulates both storm water and non-storm water (dry weather) discharges into the region’s storm water conveyance facilities to prevent pollutants such as trash, metals, bacteria, chemicals, and pesticides from being washed into storm drains and into creeks, rivers and the ocean. Compliance with the permit is projected to be expensive.

This photo from the Port of San Diego website shows the "first flush" from Chollas Creek into San Diego Bay during a storm. They write: "All of the big visible trash is the tip of the iceberg -- what you're not seeing are all of the microscopic pollutants such as bacteria, grease, oil, metals, pesticides and fertilizers."

This photo from the Port of San Diego website shows the "first flush" from Chollas Creek into San Diego Bay during a storm. They write: "All of the big visible trash is the tip of the iceberg — what you're not seeing are all of the microscopic pollutants such as bacteria, grease, oil, metals, pesticides and fertilizers."

The City’s Storm Water Division administers San Diego’s storm water program and is responsible for ensuring compliance with these regulations. The Division’s FY2014 budget includes $35.1 million for operations and maintenance drawn from the General Fund, and $25.9 million in Capital Improvement Project (CIP) funds.

The Storm Water Division’s operating budget is projected to rapidly escalate and could reach $107.6 million by the end of the 18-year outlook discussed in the IBA report, while the total CIP required for the outlook range could hit $2.7 billion (with an emphasis on “B”).

The City collects a storm drain fee from water and sewer customers to help offset the burden on the General Fund but it is, in the words of the IBA report, “significantly short of full cost recovery.” Storm drain fee collections for FY2014 are expected to cover only about 16.2% of the Storm Water Division budget.

The current fee for single-family residences is a flat rate $0.95 per month.

Interestingly, the storm drain fee paid by single family residences is billed at a flat rate while the fee for commercial/industrial and multi-family developments is based on the amount of water they use, under a rate structure that dates back to 1996. According to the Storm Water Division spokesman Bill Harris: “It was thought at the time that a flat rate, like the water and waste water service base fees, would be easier to accept and calculate…..given the hundreds of thousands of service connections. It seemed logical, I am sure, at the time.”

Harris said that in the future, fee structures would likely be more uniformly based on land-use impact models taking into account things like acreage, impervious surface area, and water usage.

The Storm Water Division will need additional funds (in ever-increasing amounts) beginning in FY2015 to address regulatory compliance and for additional flood management activities. For the next five years alone:

From page 3 of the IBA report)

From page 3 of the IBA report)

With a water rate increase already proposed to take effect in January 2014, San Diego residents will be less than happy to learn that the storm drain fee (one of several fees bundled with the water bill) is likely to dramatically rise over the coming years. For single-family residences it could jump from the current $0.95 per month to $3.49 per month in 2015, ballooning to $11.14 per month by 2019.

If that’s not sobering enough, the picture through the year 2031 should make one sit up. The IBA report says: “By the end of the 18 year outlook in FY 2031, $43.25/month would be required from single family residences.”

From page 6 of the IBA report.

From page 6 of the IBA report.

From page 6 of the IBA report.

From page 6 of the IBA report.

One consolation is that beyond the first five year estimate which is fairly certain, standards, methods, and technology may evolve in ways that could reduce anticipated costs in later years.

Any increase in the municipal storm drain fee would require an election with approval by either a majority of property owners or two-thirds of the general electorate.

The City could face monetary non-compliance penalties if action is deferred beyond FY2015. The IBA report noted that state penalties could amount to $10,000 per day per violation, along with federal penalties of $27,500 per day per violation. Each storm drain outfall may be counted as a separate violation.

Another financial consideration is that the City has deferred some $146 million in needed storm drain infrastructure replacement/rehabilitation.

“[T]he City will need to find a dedicated funding source for Storm Water activities as mandated regulations become increasingly stringent and costly. If no funding is identified the City’s General Fund will have to continue to contribute increased funding in order to remain in compliance, reducing funding for other priorities and services. If funding is not identified from either a dedicated revenue stream or the General Fund, the City may fall out of compliance which could potentially result in significant penalties assessed by the state and federal government. Additionally, deferring flood risk management exposes assets to an increased risk of failure, causing sinkholes, property damage and costly emergency replacement and repair.” — the IBA report’s conclusion




Urban storm water management is informally thought of as devising ways to channel rainwater runoff away from roads, structures, parking lots, and other impermeable surfaces as quickly as possible into storm drains leading to creeks and streams and eventually the ocean. It’s more complicated, though, and regulations are just part of the picture.

The City of San Diego lies in six separate watersheds: San Dieguito, Los Peñasquitos, Mission Bay and La Jolla, San Diego River, San Diego Bay, and Tijuana River.

Watersheds cross political boundaries. This map from Project Clean Water is a good illustration of the watersheds in San Diego County (if you use the above link to view the map on their website you can move your mouse pointer across the map to highlight and click for description of specific watersheds.).

Because watersheds cross political boundaries we have collaborative regional management of storm water issues. For example, there is San Diego Integrated Regional Water Management Planning. SDIRWMP is an interdisciplinary effort by water retailers, wastewater agencies, storm water and flood managers, watershed groups, the business community, tribes, agriculture, and non-profit stakeholders. Its 2013 Integrated Regional Water Management Plan in turn follows California Department of Water Resources guidelines.


Background and sources

City of San Diego Independent Budget Analyst (IBA)

City of San Diego: Storm Water Division

Integrated Regional Water Management


Regional Water Quality Control Boards

News media reports

Posts from this blog


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