Pollution Culture

While the citizens want clean water, City and County actions suggest a culture of indifference to persistent water pollution.

by Carolyn Chase


fter reading the City and County of San Diego's official legal comments on the proposed Municipal Stormwater Permit that has been issued by the State Regional Water Quality Control Board in an attempt to further regulate and improve water pollution practices, I can't help but wonder if the official opinion of City and County staff isn't that it's actually impossible to bring beach and storm water pollution under control. 

The City's 35-page legalistic comments can be summarized as follows:

  • We'd really like to improve water quality, but it's really, really hard;


  • You can't make us.
  • We can't afford it -- at least not without threatening other vital (read more important) city services such as "policing or libraries.'
  • e need more time (despite the fact that the existing permit expired in 1995).
  • e can't afford it.
  • e may not even have the authority to prevent or enforce water quality aspects ourselves in the City (despite polls that show 85% of the people who live here want someone to do it).
  • e need more time (this despite the fact that an estimate 80% of this permit is the same as the existing permit, and that negotiations on the permit have been ongoing since 1994).
  • y the way, we can't afford it. (The City repeatedly states how "unpredictable" funding can be, how difficult it is to obtain, and uses Prop 218 to justify their position that they just don't think they can come up with funding for these issues.)
  • he 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 freedom to do nothing


Need I point out that the City and County have had exactly that freedom for at least the past ten years. They have also had a list of "impaired water bodies" under the Clean Water Act, along with mounting lists of beach closures. You'd think that would have been a clue that they should have been proposing to do some things differently for a while now.

Leaving the City and County to their own devices has led to minimal water quality improvements and very few consistent project design improvements. "Flexibility" on maintenance schedules is also a factor.

Over the YEARS of wrangling over this permit, jurisdictions have complained the permit wasn't specific enough. Now that the Regional Board has made it more specific, the jurisdictions complain that it's too specific.

As a matter of fact, the notable improvements in the field -- requiring testing and posting of polluted water bodies and installation of some low-flow pollution diversion systems -- have all been opposed or ignored to varying degrees by industry and a long list of city council offices. Each and every one has had to be persistently pursued by community volunteers who have fought uphill battles at every turn. This is the latest in a long list of insults to the hard work and concerns of the people who care about and attempt to make progress on these issues.

The City notes that they "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.

New City Council member Scott Peters offered positive platitudes, while the City's comments for the written legal record are fighting the details at every turn. Lacking are substantive comments on what the City bureaucracy thinks they can do for a reasonable cost.

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

The City is already moving to pit interests against one another by citing: "As important as we agree that water quality is, the expenditure of this kind of money from existing revenues will necessarily pit water quality against policing or libraries at budget time." This is a false choice. Why aren't they seriously considering the "lost costs" of dirty water including: closed beaches, sewage fines, emergency repairs, overtime, and the lost health and doctor's bills of regular water users? They still don't understand that end-of-the-pipe solutions are the most expensive to implement.

Council members should be demanding that the City Manager produce estimates of what can be done without grand budget increases. What can be achieved without tax increases?

One can only wonder how many taxpayer dollars are going to be spent battling over the legal technicalities and seeking to reduce liability while the polluting practices and attitudes in both the institutions of the City and the County are allowed to dominate.


Practices make imperfect


Politicians are in tough spot. Defending the City's legacy of pollution is no easy task and they must be given a chance. But where is the evidence that, as Peters stated, "If the City is given the flexibility to create programs to achieve objectives rather than implementing a set of specific instructions, I know that we can come up with cost effective programs that provide swimmable and fishable water as well as safe streets." Sounds noble, but the City has had the flexibility, freedom, discretion and "cost-effective" approach for years. Shouldn't we be addressing changing the City's practices and policies to support water quality?

But if politicians are in a tough spot, imagine the plight of the folks who want to use the water for recreation, not to mention the plight of wildlife.

Make no mistake, the permit is no panacea. I have little doubt that the City and County could and will prevail on certain legal and regulatory aspects. But this should not -- at some level -- be about some permit and the evidently inevitable spectacle of armies of taxpayers-funded attorneys churning out hundreds of pages of theoretical documents about what they have to do some day to deal with water pollution, while real efforts go begging.


Outcomes needed


Aside from the regulatory and legal technicalities, what can the City and County really do about water quality every day? What are they going to do? It's not like they haven't had ten years to get something going.

Peters stated that he wants the Regional Board "to de-emphasize specific programmatic language in the permit, in favor of a set of water quality outcomes that will challenge the City to develop innovative strategies, in conjunction with our stakeholders that will improve water quality." So where is the proposal for those water quality outcomes?

The City and the County have now and always have had enormous power to deal with water pollution. We've spent the last hundred years building an infrastructure that creates pollution. It just isn't a cultural priority in our institutions to admit that and move beyond it. Local government is "in denial" about the cumulative impacts of a lot of things, but especially when it comes to environmental degradation and water pollution issues.

The City's comments are overly belligerent and generally unconstructive. They are dominated by laying out the legal issues for future battles and demanding to be paid to deal with water pollution in their own backyards, caused by their own poor practices and lack of attention. While the County also raised many of the same legal objections to the permit and made many similar claims -- along the lines of "we don't have the authority, you don't have the authority, it's not our job, and you can't make us" -- the County at least did make some affirmative statements about substantive actions they plan to put into place and move forward with.


Who's responsible?


The County 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 a City that creates water pollution that closes the beaches and impacts the health of estuaries and other natural drainage systems. We have purposefully filled and eliminated wetlands and floodplains, narrowed, and channelized and under-grounded creeks and streams. We have not required developments to be designed with our natural systems. We have not funded proper maintenance.

I sense there is very little comprehension of the way the City has been designed to create water pollution in dozens of ways. Thire 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 get control of. Yes, it will take time. It will cost money. But the problem must be solved.

Fully 85% of San Diego voters want to see water quality improved. 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.

But is any of that actually reflected in the City's interactions with the Regional Board? Not that I've seen.

Where is the City's "can do" attitude that it has when it really wants to get things done -- say like with the ballpark? Maybe that's not the best example in some regard, but maybe it's the perfect example. It illustrates that when City staff and City Council get together on a priority, they can move millions to make it happen. There is no such commitment being offered on these issues.


An action plan


Even worse, many of us suspect that quite a bit can be done without breaking the bank. We should move into a phase of getting a list and putting prices and benefits on it. To the City's credit, they did support local efforts to receive $2 million dollars from the State that will support some initial water-quality related projects in Tecolote Canyon, up the watershed from consistently polluted Mission Bay.

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

Here are some basic common sense items to start with:

  • Elected officials should reject any 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. This is known as "giving the signals to the market" that are needed to spur the cost-effective innovative solutions the city says it wants.
  • The city should get its own house in order on its own lands. All 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 network of "water quality rangers" may be required. To begin with, though, water quality issues should be integrated into all existing city departments, and all field workers should integrate water quality thinking into what they do. The City and County have supported a public education program entitled "Think Blue" along these lines, but the institution itself is lagging behind.
  • Staff training should be required for all employees. They need to implement "Do Blue," not just "Think Blue."
  • A "suggestion box" awards system should be established for staff to submit 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.

Other issues to be tracked and evaluated:

  • Storm drain maintenance. The city has 25,000 storm drain structures that discharge onto beaches and bays via canyons, streets and channels.
  • Sewage leaks on private property. Leakage from so-called lateral connectors he hookups at your house between your toilets and the publicly owned mains re a likely source of pollution. The city states that such laterals are "beyond the city's ability to control," while later stating that they "hypothetically could attempt to design a program to response to and clean up sewer leaks/spills private laterals and 'charge back' the cost of such response to private landowners." They go on to explain such a program "would be unlikely to be effective." Ever notice that if you design a program to be ineffective, you get the result you expect? Can we sense that the city doesn't want to even seriously think about and cost out any such problem?
  • Street sucking systems. These are not to be confused with traditional street sweepers that merely move pollution around.
  • Street maintenance impacts and practices.
  • Pollutants of concern. Regular testing is currently limited and additional identified risks to public health must be studied and evaluated.


Just look the other way

The City appears to be "in denial" about cumulative impacts, presuming that certain behaviors may be de minimis (they cited: oil and coolant leaks from automobiles, cigarette butts in storm drains and pet wastes on sidewalks and greenbelts as potentially de minimis). With hundreds of thousands of dogs in the City, it's unclear why they think that dog waste contributions to water pollution are minimal. With several thousand cigarette butts collected every years in limited beach cleanups, and butts remaining the #1 litter item in nature, it's unclear that this pollution source is de minimis, either. They cite no references for their de minimis claims.

One way to find out if it's really de minimis is to ask anyone dealing with it: Would you like your child to sit in water with oil, coolant and dog poop?

Some of their comments border on the trivial. For instance, the City doesn't want to do annual "self assessments." They question the requirement to "draft a description of the common activities performed."

Right now, their comments reflect what I would call a "back-up" philosophy to water pollution: wait until it backs-up on us -- and it has -- and then respond with an aggressive legal offense.

Are San Diegan's willing to support tax increases to get water pollution under control? It's hard to know, when the City and County aren't even doing what they can with the resources they already have, while finding plenty of resources to battle against regulators attempting to get them to get their act together. It's likely the Cities and the County wouldn't be facing such regulatory mandates is they had done more to get pollution under control without it. As much at 80% of what is in the new permit was in the old one. Methinks they whine too much.

Finally, where is their creativity? Exactly why should citizens and the Regional Board believe that municipalities can, all of a sudden, be innovative and solution-oriented without additional regulatory mandates and incentives?

What is the revenue potential from water pollution enforcement? They're perfectly willing to set up expensive cameras to auto-ticket drivers stuck in intersections. But when it comes to even warning -- much less, busting -- water polluters, we just can't seem to get our act together.

Appropriate enforcement leads to a number of beneficial side effects:

  • Education
  • Change in behaviors
  • Could expect reduction in bad behaviors
  • Income from bad behaviors to help keep funding ongoing education and prevention efforts
  • Demonstrates respect for the law

and, the most obvious side effect:

  • Cleaner water over time.

Some complain that we don't want to call out the water pollution cops. But why is San Diego's resolve so lacking and their usual gung-ho law-and-order view of the world considered so unappealing when it comes to polluters? Can anyone really rationally justify that traffic enforcement is really more important than water pollution enforcement? Isn't it just that it's more culturally accepted by our public institutions? Why exactly can't we launch an effort to create a real clean water culture and infrastructure?

Stay tuned as Mayor Murphy and Councilmember Peters work for progress.

Carolyn Chase is Chair of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks and the Earth Day Network.