The Politics of Pollution

Our intrepid editor tries to unravel the politics behind our abysmal sewer system problems ... and finds more sludge.

by Carolyn Chase

t just burns me that in a city/region of this size and wealth, we can't manage to properly handle our solid or liquid waste issues. Last month, in seeking to figure out why, I hit political reality head on.

In seeking to unravel the political mysteries of sewage spills, infrastructure deterioration and complicated ballot measures, I had one of those "ah-ha!" experiences that leave you thinking that something important was learned. At first I couldn't quite figure out what, but after a lot of work I finally got it. Walk through this with me, and see if it makes any sense to you.

Taking council

I started with a call to a staff person for one of our local conservative city council members. I asked, what's the deal with the sewage infrastructure? Why are there consistent system failures, lack of maintenance and upgrades? Why, in America's Finest City, are American's Finest Feces washing up on American's Finest Beaches?

Fundamentally, I believe that if the government is going to wheel and deal with the captains of industry - that's all well and good. But the least they should do is cut deals that allow the city to finance and maintain the infrastructure needed to support us.

Council answer 1: You know, most of the system was built between 1910-1920.

I think, God Bless our ancestors for doing such a good job. But these things don't last forever, and apparently too few upgrades were done over the decades to avoid the pervasive, city-wide failures we now experience. We're the victims of bad timing. Now have to rebuild it, right?

Council answer 2: We can't afford to.

Huh? This is multi-billion dollar city. How is it that we can't afford to?

The answer: unfunded federal mandates. The money has had to go for water reclamation plants and other priorities determined by lawsuits and the federal government.

OK, I say, but aren't those required items also important and necessary for the infrastructure?

Maybe, but people don't want to pay for it. And, if people don't want to pay for it, what can we do?

Well, we've all seen projects with political connections and high profiles find the money somehow.

Council answer 3: There isn't the political will.

This was where I hit political reality - the point where I came face to face with the truth about my own liberal-conservative nexus. Because I was willing to say we should try and wring more bucks out the citizenry to pay for our waste, I was a liberal.

In my view of the world, you have to figure out how to pay for properly managing waste products. In the council member's world view, you simply can't raise taxes; if the system pollutes, the system pollutes. This underlying laissez-faire philosophy is one part of the puzzle.

See no evil, speak no evil

Even years after having our sewers explode on international TV during the America's Cup, sewage breaks and spills are still the norm on the local news. Beach closures remain steady, even when city promoters claim tourism dollars require clean beaches.

One reaction to our recent article headline, "American's Finest City, American's Most Polluted Beaches," was that I should be ashamed of myself for threatening our tourism industry. What if a line like that made into the New York Times? I could have devastated the tourism economy. All by my little lonesome! I guess it's a very minor point that it's the pollution that's actually the problem - but it's much easier to kill the messenger.


Somehow, the city finds millions to spend on private parties, political conventions and other perceived high-profile, money-making projects. But people can't afford more taxes to fix the sewers.

The truth is, some can afford it and some can't. In our political system (perhaps in all of them) those who can't don't matter and those who can fight against it. Of course, the ones who fight back are also the ones right in there asking for breaks or funding from the government the rest of the time.

Assume for a moment I agree that not raising taxes is sacrosanct. Then it's back to priorities isn't it? The truth is, sewage and solid waste rate way down on the list of critical areas.

But I wasn't giving up yet. My recollection of our already steeply-raised sewer rates stuck in my mind. What about the bureaucracy itself? Is it efficient? If we spend the money will, we get the needed fixes?

Just a few week ago, the City Council voted for a 6 percent increase in sewer fees this year and another 6 percent after that. The city provided a list of projects that totaled more than $1.2 billion. This is good, I think. Something's being done. But, skeptic that I am, I put in call to my Councilmember and left the following message:

"Could you tell me if anyone has checked to see that this $1.2 billion of projects will lead to reduced sewage spills and beach pollution? Is this the right list of projects to solve pollution problems and not just to accommodate system expansion?"

I'm still waiting to hear back. Stay tuned.

Carolyn Chase is, among other things, Chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board.