Polluted water costs city & county billions

Citizens can help stop pollution or pay huge tax increases.

by Robert LaRosa, PhD


he money mantra at City Hall is millions to solve San Diego's water pollution dilemma. Even with deferring capital costs of abiding by state's safe drinking water legislation, the city admits it can't afford the fixes now required by the Clean Water Act.

    So what happens when 60 years of indifference to the region's water resources collides with vigorous enforcement of state and federal water quality laws? Industry screams economic hardship: controlling polluted runoff will add to land development costs. Municipalities are equally unhappy about spending money and propose new taxes to meet budget shortfall. Water rate-payers are understandably irate.

    The problem with adding more employees or consultants to government payroll, and begging for leniency from enforcement agencies, is that city and county residents – the source of most pollution – are excused from direct participation in the solution. There is no escaping the expense of equipment, construction or materials in repairing and replacing sewer pipe and storm drains. However, the time and effort to inspect and clean gutters and culverts, check construction sites for pollution control compliance, and maintain flood control channels can be done economically. Moreover, monitoring stormwater outfalls – observing what's being flushed down residential driveways and dumped into local creek channels – is work that ordinary citizens, even children, can do as public service.

    But volunteerism must move beyond verbalizing. Talk of “service learning” for youngsters, rehabilitation for problem adults, and recruitment of retirees and the underemployed for community service must be transformed into deeds. The choice is simple: get an attitude of environmental stewardship and community pride, or pay someone else to do it. City management says the current price tag to improve stormwater discharge – for starters – is $1,000,000 per week. The total repair job may skyrocket to a billion per year.

    Teaching communities about urban runoff can save big bucks. Volunteer monitoring of construction sites for pollution, doing simple water testing, and applying hand labor to clean up wetlands and flood channels are not tough jobs. Resistance to community service comes from the negative stigma of “stoop” labor, and some who view volunteer groups as a liability.

School, naturally


    Along with mainstream membership organizations, legal groups and grassroots activists, The Nature School, a San Diego environmental education and restoration ecology nonprofit, has been demonstrating the power of citizen initiative in combating nonpoint-source pollution since 1993. Over the years, besides winning national and state awards for innovative ecology programs, volunteers have provided hands-on training for children in water quality monitoring, endangered species protection, habitat enhancement, watershed education and community stewardship. It is a nonstop, arduous, but crucial job that needs greater participation – and genuine support – from elected officials, public agency heads and community civic and business groups.

    Make no mistake: keeping San Diego green, pretty and clean is an awesome responsibility that most residents take for granted. Wheeling the garbage cart to the street curb is the extent of some people's environmental concern. And, if not for government environmental protection agencies such as the State Water Resources Control Board, conditions in our city and county might be deplorable. Scientists and engineers of the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board ought to be praised for their compassion and reason in enforcing the Clean Water Act.

    Compliance with most quality regulations is incomprehensibly expensive, chiefly because stopping most people from polluting water is impossible; restoring nature's highly complex systems for purifying water is impractical; and constructed wetlands as treatment systems are easily overwhelmed by the volume and toxicity of stormwater discharge.

They Rose to the challenge

    The city and county need help, and not just with our tax dollars. Citizen-initiated stewardship makes economic sense by saving scarce public funds for needed technical and mechanized services. The payoff from “do-it-yourself” environmentalism – community pride and personal accomplishment – is what drives volunteers who adopted Rose Creek, near Mission Bay,

    The Nature School developed “on the ground” action programs that received the Governor's Award for Economic and Environmental Leadership in 1998 for ecological flood control technology and pollution education and management in the Rose Canyon Watershed. The project later won project funding in open competition statewide.

    Creek Restoration & Ecology Education for Kids (CREEK) has turned the lower reach of Rose Creek into the City's first educational nature preserve. Project STAR (Simple Technology Against Runoff) is demonstrating water quality protection techniques, including the use of natural materials in controlling soil erosion. Little children at several public schools are operating trout hatcheries and monitoring local waterways for pollution with Classroom Aquaria Rearing Education (CARE). Their older brothers and sisters are canvassing communities as Clean Water Ambassadors to paint out graffiti, collect trash and recyclables and offer neighbors information about reducing polluted runoff.

    San Diego's environmental health is not deferrable. Ignoring clean water regulations often results in expenses that cost-conscious builders and cash-strapped cities can avoid by common sense erosion control techniques and simple rules for protecting sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat. Costs to remediate environmental abuse are tacked on to consumer prices and drain tax dollars desperately needed elsewhere.

    There's no time to waste in mustering public service to reduce polluted runoff, prevent sewage overflows and help city crews clear trash and debris from gutters, drains and flood control channels. The labor force is plentiful, but it will take a colossal shift in attitude to turn talk into deeds; spare time into stewardship.

    Volunteering to make San Diego a prettier, safer and healthier place is everyone's duty. Expecting someone else to take care of our environmental mess is expensive. A million bucks per week for starters.

    Tax dollars and the environment are ours. So are the choices.

    Robert LaRosa began his ecological apprenticeship rebuilding salmon creeks in the Santa Cruz Mts. He and Gloria Carrillo cofounded The Nature School in 1993. (619) 224-2003; Earthangpacbell.net.