Opinion: Clean water or bust: What can we afford to do?

No reasonable person argues the need for clean creeks, rivers and beaches in California.  However, if we are to meet our fiduciary responsibility in effectively managing the limited resources entrusted to us by the public, we must ask ourselves this question.  What level of implementation can local government afford for clean water programs?

The State Water Resources Control Board is reissuing the Phase II stormwater permit.  This revised permit will apply to over 200 towns, cities and counties across California.   Precedent setting changes are under consideration.  

• Changes which will grow local stormwater program costs three-fold, while these communities face revenue reductions and budget deficits.  

• Changes which will require water quality control retrofits to tens of thousands of businesses.  

• Changes which will be applied to large California cities in the future. The Bay Area, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego should be on high alert if this permit is adopted as drafted.

The draft permit includes significant new programs.  For example, agencies must prohibit individual residential car washing.  Further, agencies must use GIS and Community Based Social Marketing strategies and enforce provisions for construction of water quality control structures at existing businesses.  

For many communities, these mandated requirements could prove very costly and publically intolerable. These are just a few of the new stormwater programs elements that will be required by the state.  

Legal opinions conclude provisions within the permit constitute higher levels of service beyond those required by the federal Clean Water Act.  A representative from EPA stated at a State Board public forum that no other states in our nation have considered or are implementing Phase II stormwater programs to the level proposed.  

The brutal fact is these new state mandates will be unachievable without funding from the state. Some permit supporters have the false belief local governments can simply implement new property fees to pay for these programs. The truth is Proposition 218 severely limits local governments’ ability to establish dedicated funding sources for these mandates.  As such, local governments find themselves between the “clean water rock” and the “hard place of managing limited general funds.”  

For many communities, the draft Phase II permit will require elected officials to face a dire choice – either cut public services to pay for new stormwater programs or choose the path of non-compliance fraught with condemnation, steep fines or even litigation. 

Watsonville currently struggles with declining city revenues and a local unemployment rate of 29 percent.  Our median household income of $47,000 is almost $13,000 less than the state median.

To balance our current budget we cut 10 percent of all programs, including stormwater quality.  To say times are tough would be a masterful understatement. Despite these severe handicaps, Watsonville has worked hard to keep its environmental programs afloat.

Many other communities facing similar situations are doing the same. We recognize the importance of these programs to the communities we serve.

We agree with the Board’s agenda for clean water and are willing to continue implementing and, whenever possible, improving our programs. The simple fact of the matter is we simply cannot afford what the state is now proposing.  

What would you do if faced with the choice of paying for increased clean water programs or retaining public safety staff and supporting at risk youth programs? The choice for many communities is that stark.   

California businesses will also be challenged.  By May 2014 local governments must require water quality retrofits and new, often duplicative, government inspection and oversight programs.  Businesses not complying could be cited or fined. This could be the last straw for small businesses who are struggling to stay afloat during this brutal economic period.
Watsonville and 59 other local governments have joined to form the Statewide Stormwater Coalition (SSC).

The SSC is asking the State Board to re-draft the Phase II permit after conducting a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis; an analysis that evaluates costs to local government and to businesses.  

The SSC strongly believes this will guide the State Board in assessing the most effective permit provisions without placing local government in a position of non-compliance and adding additional financial burden to an already struggling business community.  

We fully support a robust, effective stormwater permitting program.  However, we also recognize our responsibility to use our limited resources to their highest and best use.  

The State Board must provide balance within this permit so we can achieve water quality improvements in a fiscally responsible way.  These concepts are not mutually exclusive.  For more information, please visit

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: