California is yet again facing statewide drought conditions. According to the most recent data from the National Integrated Drought Information System, 100% of the state is currently experiencing moderate drought and over 83% of the state is experiencing extreme drought. Yet the Bay Area recently received a record-breaking volume of rain, with some areas receiving over 12 inches in 24 hours, testing the limits of our flood control systems. Experiencing such large swings in the absence and presence of rain provides the opportunity to reflect upon our urban landscape and its relationship to water.
Our urban communities are comprised of concrete and other hardened surfaces, like roads, parking lots and sidewalks. Collectively, those hardened surfaces keep water from seeping into the ground. To control that volume of water, our flood control systems are designed to capture and move water from the urban landscape as fast as possible. Meaning, even though we are experiencing extreme drought, the majority of our rain water simply washes out of our communities. We need roads to drive on and flood control systems to keep life and property safe. Still, we have an opportunity to do better. There are three main ways that we can collectively make a difference.
First, recognize stormwater is a resource. At the statewide scale, municipalities are working together to identify ways to capture as much rain as possible — commonly referred to as stormwater capture. In different parts of the state, stormwater capture may mean different things, but the end goal is the same: capture more water locally and create more resilient communities.
In some places, stormwater capture may be a large-scale infiltration project that results in increased groundwater supply. In other places, it may look more like sustainable streets, comprised of green infrastructure built into the sidewalks and roadways, allowing water to soak into the land rather than drain straight to the bay or ocean. The City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County recently developed a green streets master plan to do just that. It is a plan in action, with many green projects already improving local neighborhoods.
Stormwater capture can also provide other benefits beyond water resiliency, like adding more green spaces and parks that create more livable and enjoyable neighborhoods. These community scale benefits amplify the value of such investments, particularly for underserved communities.
Second, conserve water and prevent pollution. At the individual level, we all can make an immediate and tangible impact through our daily choices. What can you do today? Choose the least toxic pesticides possible — check out Our Water, Our World and look for the logo in your local retail stores. Reduce consumption of plastic — choose reusable water bottles and avoid single-use products like plastic bags. Local agencies like Baywise have even more simple, cost-effective ways to protect the San Francisco Bay by preventing pollution at the source.
At the statewide scale, we are working to keep pollution from entering the environment in the first place — what we call “true source control.” For example, we are working with regulatory agencies to ensure that if a pesticide is on store shelves, it will not cause toxicity in our waterways. We successfully worked with the California State Legislature to reduce the amount of copper in brake pads and are currently working to reduce the concentration of zinc in motor vehicle tires. While we can tackle each issue pollutant by pollutant, ultimately we need stronger state and federal policies that consider the environmental impacts of chemicals and products before they have the opportunity to enter our waterways. To truly achieve a resilient California, stormwater, wastewater, drinking water and groundwater agencies are moving toward integrated and visionary solutions for water management. Pollution prevention, at the source, simply must occur for these solutions to be viable.
Third, make significant, dedicated investments. Capturing water in our communities and protecting our water resources will provide substantial value — healthier, more livable and more resilient communities. To turn these solutions into reality, we need to work together to raise awareness and resources, starting at the local level.
For example, did you know that unlike all other water resources, most stormwater programs in California lack dedicated funding? Almost all municipalities rely solely on their local general fund — the same source of funding for law enforcement, fire, paramedics, parks, street lighting and libraries. Dedicated funding would allow local governments to plan for and implement solutions in your local community. But we know that local communities alone cannot provide the resources needed to reshape our urban landscapes. Both the state and federal governments have a significant role to play, particularly in our underserved communities.
What can you do? At the local level, support your community’s efforts to capture stormwater. Educate your neighbors on why these projects are critical to our future. Support funding measures to provide the resources needed to improve your neighborhoods. Support statewide measures to fund stormwater capture and source control solutions. It will take all of us, working together, to secure our future and achieve a more resilient California.
Karen Cowan is executive director of the California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA), a nonprofit that advances sustainable stormwater management protective of California water resources. CASQA’s membership is comprised of 180 cities, 23 counties, special districts, federal agencies, state agencies, ports, universities and school districts, wastewater agencies, water suppliers, industries and consulting firms throughout the state, representing over 26 million people in California.