Storm damage
Storm damage in Linda Vista from the 2016 El Nino. Courtesy of the city

If you’ve lived in San Diego for any length of time, you no doubt have heard the term “Think Blue” — the city’s long-running outreach campaign to remind locals that everything spilled, dumped or tossed on our streets will eventually work its way into the pipes that drain onto our beaches. 

That campaign is more timely than ever in the aftermath of the days-long storms that swept into San Diego and the rest of the state.

Bethany Bezak, the interim director for the city’s Stormwater Department, delivered this week to city leaders the agency’s annual report, which she called a “very timely presentation given the significance of the rain we have had” and the need to adequately fund the department’s operations.

In her presentation to the City Council’s Environment Committee, Bezak pointed out that while San Diego did experience higher rainfall, it avoided the pain of other California regions. But she cautioned that there is always the potential that it could face the same consequences, using the example of a storm that hit San Diego seven winters ago.

“If we had received the amount of flooding they received up north it would have been the equivalent of the El Niño storms in 2016,” she said.

During that time, there were extensive infrastructure failures as a result of flooding in many areas of our region. Photographs shown to the Environment Committee were stark reminders of how serious the storms were.

The flooding, Bezak said, was caused in part by “pipe failures that required emergency repairs.” To put it into perspective, the El Nino destruction was the result of 3 inches of rain over five days. By comparison, recent storms dumped 2-1/2 inches locally, five inches on Los Angeles and more than 12 inches on the Bay Area.

Officials said the department needs $335 million annually to do its job properly, yet receives only 30% of that. And this doesn’t include the cost of potential emergencies that might occur due to aging and failed infrastructure. 

The annual report notes that for years the department has been underfunded, which is common knowledge to city management. Stormwater officials said lack of funding and the need to react to emergencies are the reasons the department but can’t be as proactive as it should be.

Stormwater costs are expected to rise in the future, the department said, given a changing climate with longer periods of drought during which debris and trash accumulate in the stormwater system followed by “intense rain events that trigger flash floods.”

The Stormwater Ddepartment deals with the numerous elements of storm runoff in addition to maintaining the city’s vast stormwater system to reduce flood risk. Examples include flood channels near Mission Bay High School and in the Mission Gorge Area, catch basins throughout the city and a fleet of sweeper trucks that cleaned 61,000 miles of streets last year. 

The report detailed how the city prepared for Tropical Storm Kay, which hit the region last September. City crews inspected critical drains and pumps across the system, including emergency channel maintenance at Chollas Creek, near National Avenue, removing four feet of trash and sediment buildup that had built up before the rain, which helped minimize the possible impact of flooding to adjacent homes and businesses. 

The report also notes the city’s 15 pump stations are “vital to protecting communities from flooding as they quickly remove or reroute water away from people, property, and critical infrastructure”. But four of those stations ” currently have emergency infrastructure needs, which if all failed could cause over 160 acres of flooding, impacting businesses and homes.”

One goal for the coming year, Bezak said, is to continue to create a “stormwater harvesting system” to capture ground water and divert it into a sanitary sewer system for future use.

A call-in speaker, former state Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, referenced a Los Angeles Times article that reported that city had collected more than 10 billion gallons of stormwater since last October.

“It’s time for San Diego to look at the option” of a bond measure to a create a large capture system,” said Saldaña, who was on a presidential committee to focus on cross- border water issues.

Longtime local environmentalist Jay Powell echoed her sentiments, saying this should become a priority for the city. He added that though the department is reporting some funding sources for a self storage program, “we need to do something more aggressive to encourage homes and businesses to have serious kinds of storage.”

The full city council will receive the report in the near future for review and possible action.