San Diego’s Infrastructure Deficit Is Really a Stormwater Deficit

It’s becoming clear that stormwater is by far the city’s biggest infrastructure problem – and that the city might actually do something about it.

The infrastructure deficit that has hung over San Diego politics for years without meaningful intervention is perhaps better understood as a stormwater deficit.

Eight years ago, Mayor Todd Gloria, then Council president, pledged to craft an infrastructure-focused ballot measure for the 2016 ballot, to address the city’s crumbling roads, sidewalks, pipes and drains. That never happened, and the problem has only gotten worse. But the city now appears to be serious about pursuing a measure to fund a specific, and massive, piece of the city’s infrastructure failure: its stormwater system.

It’s been a poorly kept secret in City Hall that for all the talk of sexy streets, the brunt of the city’s needs in repairing all the physical components that make life in a city possible actually owe to the derelict system we use to control where water goes after it hits the ground from rain.

The city’s busted stormwater system leads to flooding, sinkholes and toxic and bacteria-laden material flowing into the region’s coastal waters. And while it isn’t unique to San Diego that stormwater infrastructure like drains, pipes and pump stations has gotten worse year after year, with annual funding insufficient to keep the problem from getting worse, let alone making any progress on its overall condition, it is now clear that stormwater is the city’s biggest infrastructure problem – and also, that the city might actually do something about it.

In the next five years, the city projects that it will need to spend some $5.7 billion on all of its infrastructure needs. That includes streets, sidewalks, city buildings, parks, traffic signals – everything – and it does not include the city’s so called “discretionary” needs, which refers to projects the city wants to do, but recognizes as nonessential, like new protected bike lanes.

The city’s needed funding for stormwater alone, that is, outpaces its unfunded need for all its roads, streetlights, sidewalks, parks and buildings combined. That need is driven by compounding issues: The state has increased regulatory requirements on how effective the city’s stormwater system needs to be, at the same time that the city’s system became obsolete, its population grew and the impacts of climate change grew more severe.

And that’s just over the next five years. The city’s stormwater department estimates an average gap between needed stormwater funding and available stormwater funding of about $225 million a year through 2040.

That daunting state of affairs is why the city is now pursuing a potential ballot measure in 2022 to address some of that need. A City Council committee last month took the first steps to that end, when it greenlit the polling and community outreach work that would be the basis of a ballot measure. The Council is also set to hear from city staff Tuesday on the grim five-year outlook for funding all the necessary improvements to the city’s roads, streets, drains, pipes and all the rest.

In the summer of 2018, the city auditor’s office published a scathing report outlining the city’s history of ignoring its growing stormwater needs. That was the start of the process that has put a ballot measure in play. One of its recommendations was for the city to put together a long-term funding strategy in January 2021 – just in time for a new mayor to take office.

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