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Stormwater permit a deluge of new regulations

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In April, the Regional Water Quality Control Board will make an important decision about how San Diego is going to reduce the amount of pollutants that enter our local storm drains. The MS-4 permit, or stormwater permit, will be updated with the goal of reducing contaminants from rain water runoff.

Unfortunately, the draft permit in its current form lacks a regional strategy to tackle the problem of existing urban runoff. It instead focuses on a house-by-house solution that essentially prohibits rainwater from leaving your property.

According to the most recent SANDAG data, there are currently 1.1 million homes in San Diego County, yet the permit primarily covers new home and business construction. The 6,400 homes built last year represent 0.005 percent of total households in San Diego. Regulating them alone will do little to curtail pollution reaching waterways and places a serious burden on San Diego’s recovering economy.

For the last six months, the water board has received input from a range of advisors -- environmental groups, local governments and organizations like ours, the Building Industry Association of San Diego (BIA). To provide a better way forward, the BIA has partnered with members of the environmental community and proposed alternative solutions to the runoff problem. While a partnership between the building industry and environmental groups is hardly without precedent, in this case it could well place the local water board as “the odd man out.” The industry reached out to the environmentalists to evidence its sincerity in coming up with the right cleanup program for San Diego.

We have met with the water board’s staff and discussed the complexities of complying with the regulations in the draft plan. These discussions continue with the goal of designing a permit that tackles pollution without crippling new development.

To be effective, several shortcomings in the draft permit need to be fixed.

Communities and structures built before 1976, when the first permit was passed, meet no regulations at all. Contaminates in rainwater primarily originate in these areas — not in new developments that have been subject to thorough storm water regulations for more than years. But the new stormwater permit only addresses new development, and it proposes costly new regulations.

The current permit stipulates that new developments must comply with what can colloquially be referred to as a “catch and release” policy. Water must be detained on the premises, filtered, and slowly released at the rate that it naturally would dissipate pre-development.

Here is some perspective: The cost of a home built today can include from $4,500 to $25,000 complying with the current permit. Local governments already spend $300 million every year in compliance and could spend twice as much under the proposed regulations.

If the recently built Palomar Medical Center were built under the new permit, their compliance costs would have increased by almost 50 percent. The additional cost-per-new-home could be as high as $50,000.

Compliance costs would sky rocket because the new policy would be to “catch and don’t release.” This leaves us to ask a pressing question: what to do with all the water? The two most obvious alternatives are to release it deep in the ground by a process called infiltration, or to store the water on-site in large tanks.

Infiltration is impossible in 90 percent of the county, as the soil is primarily clay. Infiltration would cause landslides and sinkholes. At the same time, the cost of holding tanks is substantial and the solution is temporary at best. Recycling the water for irrigation would be impossible, as a single rainstorm generates enough water to overwhelm any water collection system on private property and would cause flooding.

So what should be done? Any solution to the pollution problem must address the already built urban environment. This is the source of the vast majority of pollution trickling its way to the coast. Plans need to be made on a watershed-by-watershed basis. Extensive research into the actual source of the pollutants needs to be conducted, and actionable, practical measures for eliminating it must be created. We should look to how we handle wastewater -- not in on-site septic tanks, but using regional facilities. Whatever the solution, there needs to be a public discussion needs to be had and effectual measures ought to be pursued.

We look forward to a continued discussion with the water board and others on this issue.

For more information about how this permit affects you and how you can take action to prevent it, contact: mmcsweeney@biasandiego.org.

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