A Strategic Approach to Water Quality Protection

Faced with increasing water quality regulations and tightening budgets, 21 co-permittees in San Diego are developing a strategic approach to guide water quality programs over the next 20 years.

As most in the field of water resources are aware, the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) was promulgated to address sources of pollution contributing to the degradation of our waterways. As regulations evolved, and waters are still not free from pollutants, the focus has shifted to regulating non-point sources of pollution, including urban runoff and stormwater.

Surface water protection is generally accomplished through municipal, construction, and industrial stormwater permits, total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), and various plans administered by the California State Water Resources Control Board and its nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards (RWQCB). These regulations require permittees to implement Best Management Practices to the Maximum Extent Practicable (MEP), but in some cases require long-term planning and activities to comply with strict water quality objectives.

Developing a 20-Year Strategy

Last fall, 21 co-permittees in the San Diego region began to prepare for the re-issuance of the municipal stormwater permit and other new regulations on the horizon (i.e. TMDLs). The co-permittees include the 18 municipalities in San Diego county, the County of San Diego, the Unified Port of San Diego, and San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.

Permit re-issuance occurs once every five years and involves increasing requirements intended to protect water quality, as mandated by the federal Clean Water Act and the state Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. These regulations are the legal basis for the water quality programs throughout the region and cost local municipalities millions of dollars for compliance.

Faced with increasing regulations and tightening budgets, the co-permittees developed a strategic approach and vision to guide programs in addressing water quality issues in the region over the next 20 years. Key elements of the plan include:

  • Protecting and restoring appropriate beneficial uses for prioritized water bodies impacted by stormwater;
  • Achieving sustainable stormwater management that balances social, economic, and environmental needs;
  • Focusing stormwater management on sources and practices that jurisdictions have the ability to affect or control;
  • Supporting development of a regulatory framework and establishing and organizational structure that facilitates implementation of the most effective and efficient stormwater management programs.

Are even tougher regulations pending?

The Regional Water Quality Control Board recently issued an administrative draft of the new proposed permit. Staff from jurisdictions across the county are working with the regional board do develop permit language that will allow the stormwater managers to manage adaptively and implement programs that will improve water quality while maintaining permit compliance.

Significant changes as written in the current draft include:

  • A regional approach, bringing in co-permittees in south Orange and Riverside counties under one Region 9 permit
  • Watershed-based planning and prioritization
  • Stringent water quality based limits on stormwater and non-stormwater discharges from the storm drain system
  • Extensive monitoring and assessment requirements.

It is expected that these new regulations will allow for better programs that have positive impacts on the water quality in the region. As the new regulation is currently drafted, the cost implications are significant. With the new regulations on the horizon and the state of the current economy, it is imperative that public and private water quality experts across the region come together quickly to develop innovative, cost-effective, and adaptive programs to tackle the challenges ahead.