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The proverbial bar in storm drain management has been raised, again and again. California communities, already burdened by aging systems and existing standards, have been faced with dramatically increased requirements for storm drainage efforts as required by the conditions of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) as administered by the State Regional Water Quality Control Boards.

The requirements that will be effective in the next few years for eliminating trash and pollutants from the storm drain systems, creating green infrastructure, and water quality monitoring will be arduous, and very expensive. Along with these water quality requirements, California’s storm drain systems are aging, the population is increasing, the climate is changing, and the demands on our systems are higher than ever. A well vetted and technically appropriate storm drain master plan is needed.

Planning and Engineering: Storm drain management requires proactive planning, the right infrastructure, along with regular operations and maintenance. Developing, or updating, a storm drain master plan is a good place to start, as you contemplate the needs, design requirements, and unique attributes of your community. For many years in many communities, storm drain management has been low on the priority list, until recently. With more population and increased impervious surface area due to development, storm drain management, with significantly increasing water quality standards, is moving up to high priority.

The requirements for the NPDES permit in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, will require many communities to dramatically capture sediment, trash and metals in their storm drain system.  By 2022, trash down to 5mm in size (roughly the diameter of a cigarette butt) will be required to be removed from storm water. This alone will require a lot of planning and maintenance effort.

Funding: After the technical issues have been addressed, it is necessary to formulate strategies to fund both capital improvements as well as ongoing maintenance and operations. The history of funding storm drain projects in the Western United States is technically complex, and politically charged. The State of California has many unique facets curbing the creation of storm drain utilities, as allowed in Washington and Oregon.

The passage of Proposition 218 was the greatest hurdle to communities in establishing storm drain funding sources. And Proposition 26 did not help in this context. A couple of bills have been introduced which would allow local governments to establish property related fees for storm drain costs, in the same manner as currently allowed for water, sewer, and trash (i.e., the fee can be approved as long as there is not a majority protest after notice has been provided). More recently (December, 2015), the California State Association of Counties, the League of Cities, and the Association of California Water Agencies jointly filed “The California Water Conservation, Flood Control and Stormwater Management Act of 2016” which would provide for a fee mechanism for stormwater funding, as well as significant water-related legal changes. However, any of these efforts would be a constitutional amendment which will require a vote of the people if one finally passes through the legislature.

To review, storm drain financing and funding can be accomplished via a number of elements, including:

  • Development Impact Fees – one time fees to fund capital only, no maintenance
  • Regulatory Fees – fees that can fund specific requirements
  • Property-related Fees – property owner or voter approved measure to fund capital or maintenance or both
  • General Obligation Bonds – voter-approved bonds to fund capital
  • Special Taxes/CFD’s – voter-approved (or landowner approval in the case of undeveloped land) mechanism to fund capital or maintenance or both
  • Assessment Districts – property owner approved District/area to fund capital or maintenance or both
  • Grants and Other Sources – various sources
  • The General Fund – the last recourse when all of the above don’t meet the need (a very challenged fund for many, and likely the current source of storm drain funding)

These are the funding alternatives that can be implemented to generate funds for storm system improvements, operation and maintenance in your community.

Summary: There are a handful of cities and counties which have a robust funding toolset, including those who have successfully passed storm drain fees. Others have failed. Establishing a multi-disciplined team, including staff, community leaders and specialists in engineering, financial and public outreach, is the key to success. Reaching out to the public early and often in the process and maintaining a focused approach can improve the chances of successfully creating a suite of funding tools that will allow your agency to get over the “raised bar.”


For more information, contact:

Tim Seufert at tseufert@nbsgov.com or Dan Schaaf, PE at dschaaf@swsv.com.

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