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Laura Walsh

Climate & Water Program Lead at the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative

Created: Thursday, February 7, 2019 | Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Resilient stormwater systems: 3 ways local government can get started

The boom and bust cycles of a changing climate — drought and flood, extreme cold and heatwaves — are already affecting communities around the world. With lessons learned in San Diego, here are three practical ways (no billion-dollar projects & no aggressive policy solutions!) local governments can get started with resilient stormwater systems.

San Diego’s mediterranean climate contributes to long periods of drought followed by concentrated rain events. It is a natural stormwater system! Photo: San Diego Tourism Authority
San Diego’s mediterranean climate contributes to long periods of drought followed by concentrated rain events. It is a natural stormwater system! Photo: San Diego Tourism Authority

Citizens are starting to notice the “boom and bust” rain cycles that are predicted to be a signature of climate change. San Diego has a natural history with these patterns: We will have a long period with no rain (as with the recent California drought), only to welcome a massive rainstorm that effectively shuts down our streets and beaches. We have some experience planning for these extremes because of our Mediterranean climate; but storms, heatwaves and droughts are expected to be more intense in the future. Compounding our stormwater problems is our reliance on the dwindling Sierra Snowpack for drinking water.

Sound familiar? These swings from one extreme to the other, from drought to flood, present a pressing challenge for communities across the United States. The great news is that upgrading stormwater infrastructure to be more resilient represents a tremendous opportunity for cities, counties and utilities to improve residents’ quality of life, all the while saving money.

Extreme weather requires a different approach to stormwater.

It requires planners and engineers to design infrastructure that operates during both drought and flooding. It requires modern infrastructure that is more flexible and more distributed than the systems of the past; it requires infrastructure that transforms a city from a funnel into a sponge. As we say at the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative, it requires infrastructure that is “climate-smart.”

The Climate Collaborative spent the past year researching problems that public agencies face in the pursuit of making stormwater systems more resilient in the face of extremes. We interviewed thirty stormwater practitioners, consultants, non-profit organizations, and businesses about their current challenges and solutions for upgrading stormwater strategies to be more climate-smart. Out of this research emerged three replicable steps that cities, counties and utilities in Southern California are taking to get started adapting stormwater systems to boom and bust cycles.

Here they are:

1. Design integrated stormwater projects that address other urgent community needs.

Think beyond just water quality and flooding. Affixing stormwater improvements to transportation, economic development, and affordable housing goals can unlock nontraditional funding for stormwater projects, and can create widespread citizen and political support for a project that would otherwise be ignored. In San Diego, integrated stormwater projects are happening in the form of green streets, where communities are incorporating low impact development or green infrastructure techniques into roadway projects to help solve a number of community issues.

A Avenue Green Street and Pedestrian Pathway was created to link parts of National City with a pedestrian corridor, but the green infrastructure included in the project also helps reduce total maximum daily loads to a nearby watershed, capture and filter water that is used to irrigate a garden, and reduce flooding. The project was able to maximize funds for both transportation (TransNet Proposition A Fund) and stormwater (California Proposition 84 Grant).

For ideas on how to pursue and fund/finance integrated stormwater projects, check out A Field Guide to CSO+.

A Avenue Green Street and Pedestrian Pathway incorporates low impact development and creek-themed art to hide stormwater. Photo: National City Website
A Avenue Green Street and Pedestrian Pathway incorporates low impact development and creek-themed art to hide stormwater. Photo: National City Website

2. Create a demonstration project and let your community know about it.

Demonstration and pilot projects are a great way for local governments to minimize risk while experimenting with more innovative stormwater strategies. If done well, demonstration and pilot projects can also earn essential community and political buy-in — that’s why it’s so important to incorporate robust community engagement right from the get-go, and to tell the demonstration project’s story to citizens and elected officials in a compelling way. Some specific recommendations:

  • Pursue projects that are visible and in well-trafficked areas,
  • Document the project’s design, financing and funding strategies used; and any environmental, economic, or social co-benefits,
  • Tell the project’s story publicly, preferably on your city’s website where it can be seen by community members and referenced by other agencies.

Encinitas, a small coastal community in San Diego, implemented a low impact landscape design project that included xeriscaping and recountouring demonstrations in 2015. This was part of an effort to determine options for improving water quality within the Cottonwood Creek Watershed. The City has since chosen to continue orienting towards green infrastructure options to achieve watershed goals and address flood control needs; completing a “green-versus-gray” infrastructure study in early 2017 and more recently deciding to implement a network of bioretention areas throughout one of its flood-prone neighborhoods. The city considers its xeriscaping demonstration project a way to alleviate flooding, improve water quality, and “lead by example.”

Green infrastructure in Encinitas, California. Photo: San Diego County
Green infrastructure in Encinitas, California. Photo: San Diego County

3. Publish a Water Master Plan.

A clear and strategic plan for managing water as a holistic resource can increase water and energy efficiency, as well as serve other climate action planning goals. In 2016, the City of Chula Vista published a Water Stewardship Plan that outlines how water saving measures will contribute to the city’s energy efficiency goals. The San Diego International Airport also recently published a Water Stewardship Plan that frames water management holistically by outlining three concurrent goals by 2030: discharge zero stormwater, eliminate all potable use for non-potable processes, and make all critical facilities resilient to a 100-year storm event.

As with any planning effort, it’s essential that Water Master Plans are written with an unwavering eye towards implementation: What design, finance and implementation strategies are available in pursuing the goals that have been set? What specific projects can be pursued and how can they be paid for? What technologies would help achieve these goals? What implementing partners will be essential to achieving this vision?

The San Diego International Airport, the busiest single-runway commercial airport in the US, is adjacent to the San Digo Bay Watershed. Photo: The San Diego Union Tribune
The San Diego International Airport, the busiest single-runway commercial airport in the US, is adjacent to the San Diego Bay Watershed. Photo: The San Diego Union Tribune

In our quest to support innovative stormwater strategies, we have noticed that some cities assume that being climate-smart means pursuing shiny, billion-dollar projects.

That assumption doesn’t jive with us — the Climate Collaborative works across cities with populations below 30,000 and above 1.4 million. Income and ideologies vary drastically throughout the county, as do possible sources of funding for stormwater projects. The three steps described above are relevant for communities big and small, and exist apart from a region’s eligibility to receive or match specific grant funding.

Similarly, we know that for many communities, lack of political will can be a major stumbling block…that’s why none of the 3 steps involve aggressive legal or policy strategies. Instead, they are practical steps that many cities can get started on immediately.

That said, each of the suggestions described do require time and money, the two obstacles that so often stand in the way of infrastructure projects. Despite that, we’re encouraged by the progress we see in San Diego and around the country, and are hopeful that other local governments around the country can use the 3 steps we shared to get started embracing their own booms and busts.


For more on the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative’s strategy to support climate-smart stormwater, and a one pager on this topic, click here.