Environment Report: San Diego’s Orphaned Storm Water Drains Need Adoption

Stormy Drainels lives on 21st and Worth Street in San Francisco.

That’s what a volunteer San Franciscan calls the drain they adopted, agreeing to keep it clear of debris to help prevent street flooding and ocean pollution under the city Public Utilities Commission’s Adopt-a-Drain program. The program sends periodic email notifications before large storms reminding drain parents to clear their storm grates before it rains. 

California cities control flooding from urban streets by allowing rainwater to collect along curbs and fall through grated storm drains which dump all that water and debris into the ocean. That’s why beaches are typically closed for 72 hours after a rain event in San Diego; storm drains carry all kinds of waste from pet excrement in lawns to oils and other spills from industrial businesses. 

Since San Francisco’s program began in 2016, city residents adopted a quarter of the city’s 25,000 storm drains, creating a kind of free army of stormwater maintenance.

What neighboring pun artists dubbed their stormwater outlets makes for a fine hour of internet scrolling, with such strokes of genius as “Drain’t Misbehavin’” named after the Fats Waller hit, or “A Hard Drain’s Gonna Fall,” a nod to the infamous Bob Dylan ode. Some drains, as you might expect, are named things that are downright naughty. But instead of trash-clogged storm drains and road flooding, the streets of San Francisco are littered with wordsmithing.

Right now, San Diego’s storm drains are nameless orphans, waiting their turn for routine maintenance from the city of San Diego’s Stormwater Department.

Bethany Bezak, the city’s interim stormwater director, told the City Council’s Environment Committee it has less than a third of the dollars it needs this fiscal year to build and maintain miles of stormwater pipes and pumps. A $733 million loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will only cover 36 percent of the projects the department needs to build over the next five years, and none of the rising maintenance needs.

In 2021, we reported the city’s stormwater systems deficit sat at $1.27 billion – more than half of what the city said it needed to spend on infrastructure in the next five years. A measure to raise money for stormwater infrastructure didn’t make it onto the 2022 ballot. 

The City Council Environment Committee Chair, Joe LaCava, asked Bezak if the department would consider allowing San Diegans to adopt their drains. She pointed to the city’s storm drain stenciling program, an event that is promoted a few times per year by the “I Love a Clean San Diego” organization, which amounts to painting blue “drains to the ocean” signs. 

There’s a map, kind of like the Adopt-a-Drain program hosts, showing where drains have been stenciled. Between Jan. 1, 2022, and Monday, 157 volunteer San Diegans painted 186 drains. But stenciling a drain doesn’t amount to the kind of routine care adopting an orphaned drain requires. 

In San Francisco, adoptive drain parents are advised to wear bright yellow safety vests, gloves and sweep, rake or shovel sharp debris and then separate materials into their recycling, organic waste and trash bins. Found hazardous or medical waste should never be touched and trigger a report to a city call center. 

California King Tides Are Glimpse of Future Sea Level Rise

King tide waves at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla on Jan. 22, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Our photographer Ariana Drehsler captured waves slamming against the Children’s Pool in La Jolla Saturday morning, just an hour after San Diego experienced one of the highest tides of the year. 

King Tides are a term of art used to describe the phenomenon when tides reach peak highs and extreme lows – exposing magnificent tide pooling opportunities along the coast. Tides are the ocean’s response to the gravitational pull of both the moon and sun. The moon’s gravitational force is about twice as strong as the sun, explains California Sea Grant. Saturday was a new moon – when the moon lands between the sun and the earth along its orbit. That sun-moon-earth alignment causes an exceptional gravitational pull on the ocean, pulling that water outward like a bulge, creating conditions for tides to roll in and out at their extremes. 

Here’s a short Tik Tok explainer on how King Tides can help us envision a future of higher seas, should the burning of fossil fuels exacerbate the warming of the planet. 

Circulating Elsewhere in San Diego

  • The city of Tijuana is once again buying emergency water from California after its aqueduct to its Colorado River supply failed. (Voice of San Diego and Tijuanapress.com)
  • A quick explainer on where San Diego gets its water, and a bonus video where I asked San Diegans and out-of-towners whether they knew. You might be surprised by their answers. 
  • Ranchers in Tijuana River Valley wonder why local governments appear to have abandoned the task of dredging muck and trash from the river channel, which they say is why their ranches flooded so badly this year. (Voice of San Diego)
  • By way of its Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego has put gas-powered stoves on notice. Plans to decarbonize or zero-out fossil fuels from buildings likely include phasing-out these devices. (Voice of San Diego)
  • VOSD Podcast hosts featured this debate on the most recent episode. (Voice of San Diego)
  • Some San Diegans are getting a new dumpster for food waste and other organic material, part of the state’s quest to eliminate planet-warming methane from landfills. (Voice of San Diego)
  • The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth did an even deeper dive into the nexus of solar and water demand in Imperial Valley. San Diego is already developing a lot of solar in Imperial Valley and elsewhere to feed its appetite for renewable energy, something that really peeves a number of farmers.
  • California’s utility regulator said it’s going to ask the federal government to “take a serious look at what is going on in the gas and electric markets in the West.” (Union Tribune)
  • A massive injection of federal cash is driving forest thinning – eliminating thickets of younger trees that crowd old growth –  in the name of wildfire prevention among San Diego’s national forests. The Union Tribune’s Joshua Emerson Smith tells us what that means for local forests.
  • A wastewater pumping station malfunction caused a spill of 500,000 gallons of sewage into San Diego Bay. (Union Tribune)

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