Regulation Treats Local Storm Water Like Sewage

Aug 23, 2012

Cash strapped coastal cities could face millions of dollars in new expenses.  The State Water Resources Board wants them to treat storm water runoff into the Pacific Ocean as if its sewage water.

Under the recreation trial near Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove, Sarah Hardgrave points to a large pipe jutting toward the ocean.  She’s Pacific Groves’s Environmental Programs Manager. “Actually there is nothing coming out of the drain or shouldn’t be,” said Hardgrave. That’s because during the summer any water that might come out of the storm drain is diverted to a sewage treatment facility.

But in the winter, the pipe and 13 others along the Pacific Grove coastline empty thousands of gallons of untreated storm water into the ocean. The concern is not the rainwater itself, but what it washes away.  “ It is not so much about the soap when people are cleaning their cars, it’s what is coming off the cars; the grease, the oils etcetera.  All of that, the kinds of chemicals and pollutants that you are using in your yard can actually enter into the storm drain system in a heavy rainfall,” said Hardgrave.

The State Water Resources Board  has ordered about a third of the California coast to stop releasing storm water into the ocean. The parts of the coastline affected are known as Areas of Special Biological Significance.  It includes Carmel, Pebble Beach , and Pacific Grove, along with some state parks, the Navy, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.   Hardgrave says Pacific Grove is stuck because there is no place for the storm water to go except to the ocean.  “The city drains down a hillside into the ocean and is situated on granite bedrock so there is very little capacity in the land to absorb all of the water flow,“ said Hardgrave.

So Pacific Grove and 26 others got an exception to the state order. That means it has until Fall of next year to determine the amount of pollution in the storm water, and find a solution.  This monitoring alone could cost the city up to $800,000.  That’s not even the worst case scenario for this cash strapped city.   “If we were to do the ultimate compliance of eliminating all discharges into the bay through some sort of storm water capture system, which we have evaluated, that was estimated to be $40-million project,” said Hardgrave.  All this and Hardgrave questions whether untreated storm water actually harms the ocean. But Steve Shimek has no doubt it does.

Steve Shimek is the Executive Director of Monterey Coastkeeper,  an organization that advocates for the ocean. He says the whole point of creating the Areas of Special Biological Significance was to protect these important parts of the coast.  “So what I am looking for is cities taking a good faith effort to control their pollution and in a stepwise fashion reduce it,” said Shimek.   He knows complying with the regulations will be tough, but says cities and agencies have to try.  “So what I am looking for is cities taking a good faith effort to control their pollution and in a stepwise fashion reduce it,” said Shimek.

For Pacific Grove, and others with the exemption,  that means this fall and winter they will be testing storm water runoff.  They need to have a plan for addressing storm water by the Fall of 2013.