San Diego exemplifies how cities grapple with stormwater legislation

SCS Engineers
Headquarters: Long Beach, Calif.
Number of offices: 40
Total number of employees: 93
Year firm was established: 1970

Gone are the days when clean water always existed and rain was merely considered a savior for drought-ridden terrain. Subsequently, municipalities throughout the country have been forced to take notice. There is no denying that stormwater runoff is now an issue that affects not only real estate developers, builders, and businesses, but also millions of citizens.

Municipalities across the United States can observe San Diego’s experience with stormwater legislation and learn from it. The overriding dilemma lies not in achieving cleaner water and fewer beach closures, which is the true goal. Rather, it is the challenge of balancing the economic impacts of such command and control regulatory regimes with their benefits.

The battle over stormwater runoff’s effect on water quality has been brewing for nearly 20 years. The general premise put forward by the state of California has been that the adoption of ever more draconian stormwater requirements by the state and regional water quality control boards would improve the quality of stormwater runoff from streets, highways, mass transits facilities, schools, businesses, development projects, and homeowners. Yet, each time a new permit is approved, the boards contend that water quality is getting worse, not better.

Acting on behalf of the State Water Resources Control Board, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) issued a new permit to San Diego County, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the Unified Port of San Diego, and all cities within the county. Many of the permit’s most challenging provisions relate to development and redevelopment and came into effect in March 2008.

Although this permit still holds everyone from municipalities to private citizens liable, the greatest impact is to development and redevelopment at a time when the industry is suffering its worst economic losses since the Great Depression. The key changes to the permit that affect all development and redevelopment include advance treatment, low-impact development (LID) best management practice (BMP) requirements, and hydromodification.

General LID site design BMPs must be implemented at all development projects, including draining a portion of impervious areas into pervious areas before discharging to a municipal separate stormwater sewer system. Also, design and construction of pervious areas to receive and infiltrate or treat runoff from impervious areas is required, along with constructing a portion of walkways and low-traffic areas with pervious materials.

While the permit allows the project proponent and the jurisdictions to take into consideration soil conditions, slopes, and other pertinent factors, the fact remains that most soils in San Diego County are not conducive to infiltration and its improper use can lead to subsidence.

Developers also must adhere to several other LID BMPs, including conserving natural areas; constructing streets, sidewalks, or parking lot aisles to the minimum widths necessary, provided that pedestrian concerns and right-of-ways are not compromised; and minimizing soil compaction and disturbances to natural drainages. While all of these requirements are well intentioned, it is not clear how they will affect urban infill and affordable housing.

Furthermore, to manage increases in runoff discharge rates and durations from all development projects, co-permittees are now required to collaborate, develop, and implement a Hydromodification Management Plan. The specific provisions of this requirement have created curious financial anomalies. A developer wishing to construct a project in coastal urban areas, such as downtown San Diego, will not be subject to hydromodification requirements because the project discharge is conveyed directly to the bay through a series of concrete structures. However, if the same project were to be built in an inland urban area, such as Escondido, the hydromodification requirements would be imposed. This would mean that an urban project in an inland city would have to find a way to capture, store, and slowly release massive quantities of water onsite. The financial impacts of such a requirement might make urban redevelopment in inland cities impossible, even in the best economic climates.

The overall impact of permit compliance on San Diego’s pocketbook remains to be determined, but municipalities are scrambling to cover the expenses. The same story goes for businesses. Once the San Diego RWQCB approves each municipality’s program, businesses will need to assess which measures must be taken and whether continued operations in San Diego County are economically viable. In any case, locating funding to reduce urban runoff and satisfy requirements for stormwater compliance will continue to affect municipalities, businesses, and residents alike.

The above article summarizes a more detailed commentary about San Diego’s stormwater issues. Go to for the complete editorial.

Dan Johnson is a vice president and principal with SCS Engineers. He can be reached at S. Wayne Rosenbaum is a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP and can be reached at Ralph Vasquez, senior regulatory compliance specialist, heads SCS Engineers’ Stormwater Compliance Group in San Diego, and can be contacted at

Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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