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State stormwater permit would stall housing, infrastructure

A stormwater runoff system under construction. (Photo: Maksim Safaniuk, via Shutterstock)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has boldly promoted the goal of building more than 3 million new homes by 2025 to address the significant supply/demand imbalance and bring down the cost of housing. Given California’s challenging regulatory processes, we’re already falling woefully short of those ambitious goals.

In spite of this, an excessive new proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board)  – comprised of gubernatorial appointees — will further stall new housing production, as well as the development of public infrastructure and economic development projects throughout California.

The proposal will require unachievable standards for water quality compared to alternative enhanced and achievable approaches.

The fundamental problem with the permit is that it continues to propose the use of Numeric Effluent Limits (NEL) for certain impaired waterbodies…

At a time when Californians are struggling from the crushing impacts of inflation, the last thing we should be doing is driving up the cost of housing, infrastructure, and the cost of living. That’s why a broad coalition of local governments, labor unions, infrastructure advocates and business leaders are urging the governor and the Water Board to reconsider their costly and infeasible proposal.

The Water Board recently issued a revised draft of the next statewide Stormwater Construction General Permit (Permit) that governs stormwater capture, monitoring, and treatment on public and private construction projects throughout most of Southern California, with the potential for statewide implications.

The fundamental problem with the permit is that it continues to propose the use of Numeric Effluent Limits (NEL) for certain impaired waterbodies as a means of compliance – setting microscopic limits on stormwater runoff particulates that are completely impossible to achieve.

To comply with these strict standards, projects will be required to install costly active treatment systems as well as test water runoff samples to determine if the stormwater runoff exceeds the particular pollutant level for that surface water body.

 The thresholds proposed through these NELs are so microscopic that they simply cannot be achieved through any existing Best Management Practices (BMPs) or technologies, triggering immediate permit violations and enforcement that could shut down projects or substantially drive-up costs.

 In fact, even the Biden Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency did not incorporate NELs in their stormwater permit in their recently adopted standards.

 This burdensome permit would substantially increase costs for public works, infrastructure, and private economic development projects by hundreds of millions of dollars.

For instance, a Caltrans analysis found that complying with this mandate would increase stormwater compliance costs by 95% — a total cost of between $325 — $348 million every year.

Equally concerning, the permit proposal creates the opportunity for citizen suit lawsuits for permit violations of NELs. Contractors and project proponents bear the burden of proving compliance, thus further disincentivizing future projects – especially for small and minority-owned contracting companies without the staff expertise, resources, or technology to handle compliance and endless litigation.

Given the infeasibility of the NELs, the board’s permit will have negligible benefits on water quality.

We believe there is another, better way to protect water quality without stopping projects or making them prohibitively expensive.  The board can adopt a permit that improves water quality by relying on a Best Management Practices (BMP) approach building off what occurs today and Numeric Action Levels which would require permittees to address problems that arise without fear of incurring fines, penalties, and increased legal exposure.

Californians are getting slammed by the inflated cost of everything.

We urge Gov. Newsom to support a proposal that protects water quality without killing needed economic development projects and driving up consumer and taxpayer costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Editor’s Note: Joseph Cruz is executive director for the California State Council of Laborers. Richard J. Lambros is the managing director for Southern California Leadership Council.

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