Overburdened, Underfunded Stormwater Systems Threaten Public Safety, Water Quality Compliance Goals
Local governments are struggling to fund millions of dollars in improvements needed to repair and upgrade antiquated stormwater systems, increasing the likelihood of flooding and widespread failure to meet new water quality goals, members of the California Rebuild America Coalition said.
"California communities are trying just to keep their fingers in the dike, and it's getting harder and harder to maintain systems vital to public health and safety that date back to the early 20th century," said Los Angeles City Engineer Vitaly Troyan. "The existing system is severely overburdened. We're doing everything we can to keep the old system functional, while at the same time, new regulations and continued population increases necessitate a dramatic, costly expansion."
Troyan noted that stormwater systems used to be just a series of pipes that carried water runoff from streets and flood control systems. Now these same systems must be equipped with structures designed to protect the environment, like filters, ponds and wetlands.
"It's going to be somewhere between tough and impossible for local agencies to meet new stormwater standards that are being incorporated into the next generation of water quality permits," said Doug Harrison, general manager of the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District. "The ability to impose stormwater requirements has simply evolved far faster than the science and economics needed to attain compliance."
The deterioration and overburdening of stormwater systems throughout California is similar to the stress placed on other infrastructure systems in the state due to lack of planning and funding. California has significantly decreased its spending on capital improvements over the past 40 years despite massive population growth. In the early 1960s, about a quarter of the state budget was spent on public works projects; today, that number is closer to three percent. This year's tight state budget and laws that make it more difficult for local governments to raise necessary funds through fees or special taxes mean stormwater systems will likely get worse before they get better.
A five-year capital improvement plan intended to document infrastructure needs and set priorities to address deficiencies was supposed to be submitted with the state budget in January. But because of the growing state budget shortfall, the plan was not delivered as required.
"Instead of compiling a comprehensive plan, state agencies were asked to reassess infrastructure `needs' in light of current economic conditions," said Sarah Layton Wallace, CalRAC executive vice president. "The fact is, the `needs' remain the same regardless of the economy.
"What changes is whether we can invest with surplus dollars or must pursue other means of financing infrastructure investment," Wallace said. "As long as infrastructure spending is neglected, the price to maintain and upgrade systems that are already pushed to their limits will rise precipitously. We can take the steps necessary to start paying now or pay a lot more later."
More than 40 percent of Los Angeles' vast storm drain system, which includes over 1,200 miles of pipe and more than 2,300 culverts, is between 50 and 80 years old. An estimated $52 million is needed just to replace the two percent of the system that is over 100 years old.
The City of Palo Alto estimates that it needs $48 million in storm drain improvements, but the current household fee of $4.25 per month has not been increased since 1994 and is inadequate. A ballot measure to increase the fee, required by Proposition 218, was recently voted down.
Much of Oakland's 300 miles of storm drains and 9,600 inlets were installed prior to 1940. At least $40 million in capital improvements are needed to address known flooding problems, erosion and drainage maintenance. The city's $950,000 maintenance budget is woefully inadequate and creates an annual estimated shortfall exceeding $8 million.
"The stories are the same up and down the state," Wallace said. "The public safety and economic costs of not adequately maintaining storm systems or adding new capacity to meet population growth can be high. The question becomes whether you want to pay an increasingly higher price to fix stormwater systems later or save money and property by investing in their maintenance and upgrade in the near term."