Deferred maintenance on city storm water system may lead to emergencies

SAN DIEGO — A city of San Diego analysis delivered to the City Council’s Audit Committee Wednesday found that Storm Water Division infrastructure faces the largest deferred maintenance backlog of any asset type in the city amid chronically insufficient funding.

Continued deficits could lead to more emergencies and an inability to meet water quality requirements, Principal Senior Performance Auditor Andy Hanau told the committee.

The Storm Water Division is projected to need $891 million to keep up with infrastructure needs and water quality standards over the next five years. Only $433 million in funding has been identified, however, leaving a gap of about $458 million.

Though a relatively new in-house repair team has saved the division money, the establishment of additional efficient practices alone isn’t expected to solve the funding issue.

The audit office found that deteriorating corrugated metal pipes are the division’s most pressing need.

Despite making up only 4 percent of the city’s storm drain system, corrugated pipes accounted for 65 percent of capital improvement projects between 2009 and 2017, nearly all of them the result of pipe failures.

At the city’s current pace, it will take 95 years to replace corrugated pipes, even though roughly 90 percent of them have already passed their 35-year “useful life” benchmark.

Compared to proactive maintenance, deferred projects can compound infrastructure costs because of complications arising from part failures and other emergencies.

“This has been going on for so long and we’ve known about it for years. Each year that goes by we’re just kind of stuck at the same amount of funding because we aren’t getting any more revenue,” City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said. “… When the pipes burst we get fines — we get lawsuits. There’s more money involved, actually, by not having it repaired and maintained. You have increased risk of contaminated water.”

Burst pipes can also lead to sinkholes.

Performance auditor Megan Garth said city officials have been notified of Storm Water Divison funding shortages numerous times over the last 20 years, but a supplementary revenue source was never identified.

The division is currently funded by the city’s general and infrastructure funds. Its largest revenue source is a monthly storm water fee, which is 95 cents per month for single-family homes.

Water quality fees vary widely between California cities, Hanau said, from nothing up to $12 per month.

San Diego’s fee, originally intended to cover the Storm Water Division’s costs, hasn’t increased since 1996.

Raising the fee is one potential method for cutting into the division’s funding gap, Garth said.

A 2014 Public Policy Institute of California report found that voters in state municipalities approved 60 of 73 ballot measures increasing water quality and flood control revenue between 1997 and 2013.

The city could also float a bond measure to voters, take out commercial paper loans or more aggressively pursue grants and state revolving funds.

Officials called for an educational campaign to alert San Diegans of storm water issues and gauge potential enthusiasm for a tax increase or bond proposal.

“Would people be willing to pay the equivalent of one gallon of gas a month to have clean water and clean oceans and bays? I don’t know. But we can know if we actually educate people,” Zapf said. “…The staggering, sobering statistics that we heard here today are a testament to what we really need to do.”