Council reluctantly OKs state water permit

Council reluctantly OKs state water permit
The Escondido City Council is up in arms about the new permit recently mandated by the California Water Resources Control Board. Photo by Tony Cagala

ESCONDIDO — Complex may be an understatement when discussing the state’s Storm Water Design Manual and accompanying permit.

Nevertheless, the City Council here was up in arms about the new permit recently mandated by the California Water Resources Control Board.

Leading the charge against the permit, which the council had to approve on Jan. 13, was councilman John Masson, who voted no in protest. Also an engineer, Masson railed against Gov. Jerry Brown and the water board for overreaching steps to ensure water cleanliness.

Masson said the city already meets pollutant thresholds and the new regulations, thus the new standards are overreaching.

“I need to make a point because I have heartburn with this thing,” he said. “None of this stuff is proven, consultants are getting rich off this. It’s an unfounded mandate that is being pushed through by a board that has been appointed by the governor, a board who doesn’t understand hydrology, who doesn’t understand engineering, who doesn’t understand groundwater and doesn’t understand how all this works.”

Masson said the new permit will increase costs on taxpayers, housing and jobs. In addition, 83 percent of the land in Escondido has been developed, thus the policies have nothing to do with clean water.

“If this were about cleaning water, we’d be dealing with this on a macro level in each basin regionally,” he added. “We are hanging this thing on new homes and cleaning rooftops. The other piece is revenue generation because these guys can come and fine us on a whim. And we have to prove to them that it’s not dirty or we didn’t cause it.”

According to Helen Davies, environmental programs manager for the city, the operation of storm drains is to prevent flooding, however the runoff water must be treated before being released into creeks.

Requirements for new development and redevelopment must be followed, while the Public Works Department will collect a $750 fee to review and approve projects.

The water board, meanwhile, mandates certain controls for runoff, such as meeting volume and cleanliness standards.

Davies said changes include the retention of discharge from a property is reduced and looking at conditions of a property prior to development.

“In terms of how much water you have running off, if you are increasing that flow, you have to mitigate for that flow,” she said. “If you are going back to predevelopment, i.e. before Escondido came about, then that’s quite a difference because you wouldn’t have had pavement in those times.”

The new requirements means her office must coordinate with other departments such as planning, building and engineering to organize the permit for projects.

“There is a strong disagreement about the state overreach,” Mayor Sam Abed said. “I think the policy that is coming down from the state and regional board, who are accountable to nobody because they are appointed and it’s a political position to say the least … it’s really affecting the little guys.”

According to water expert Tory Walker, director of Tory R. Walker Engineering in Vista, the permit is a layered piece of control measures ensuring storm water is properly filtered before entering the environment.

In short, the goal is to eliminate storm water pollution to protect local watersheds in new commercial, industrial, residential and municipal developments.

The program requires cities to retain 100 percent of design capture volume. If water can’t be retained onsite, the untreated water should run through biofiltration.

Per Walker, the permit is permission to discharge storm water from a property.

“There’s multiple layers, which makes it confusing,” he said. “There are limitations sometimes placed upon the amount of pollutants that can be discharged through storm water. There are less tangible standards on what would be considered best practices.”

One problem with the “less tangible standards,” Walker noted, is there is no firm measurement where pollutants are reduced. He said one of the terms tossed around is maximum practicable, which can be defined in different ways for separate projects.

“The confusion is because it’s constantly changing and not measureable,” Walker added. “From my perspective, most of what we’ve been doing for the last 20-plus years has not made a lot of sense. That’s typical of a lot of regulations that are mandated nationwide.”

Walker said regional climate, types of streams and other environment circumstances don’t appear to be a factor when developing new regulations. He likened the legislating philosophy as a one-size fits all approach.

However, the alternative compliance is “one good thing” about the new permit. He said it allows for cities or counties to achieve better results.

“It’s a way to start looking at cities, developers and society to take the problem and start focusing on where to do the most good,” Walker added. “To keep streams from eroding, to keep lagoons from silting in and trying to keep a lot of bacteria out of oceans from summer low flows. What can we do to attack the problem smarter?”

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