San Mateo County to fight stormwater contamination with new runoff initiatives

San Mateo County is drafting a new Stormwater Resource Plan to combat water pollution and fulfill state water quality mandates.

San Mateo County is drafting a new Stormwater Resource Plan to combat water pollution and fulfill state water quality mandates. The plan, which includes expanding water-retaining landscaping and the launching of a PCB chemical abatement program, will be up for public review in December.

Rainwater is welcome in drought-stricken California, but it also funnels pollutants from streets and various urban sites into waterways. “Stormwater management is not only about flood protection anymore, it’s about preventing contamination of creeks, the Bay and the Pacific,” said Matt Fabry, manager of water pollution programs at the City/County Association of Governments.

New efforts will add strategic vegetation, soil and gravel to absorb rain and decrease the volume of water being fast-tracked away from urban centers.

To prevent water contamination in the first place, the county is simultaneously forming a PCB chemical clean-up program for public buildings set for demolition, similar to those existing for lead paint and asbestos.

Local officials say they are having difficulty meeting unfunded water quality regulations from Sacramento. Together, San Mateo and Alameda Counties are challenging state stormwater mandates in court, arguing the requirements go beyond federal standards. If correct, Sacramento may have to cover the extra costs – potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for San Mateo County over the coming decades, said Fabry. He cited a recent ruling in favor of Los Angeles County on a similar challenge as setting an important precedent.

Ed Larenas, local chairman of the clean water advocacy group Surfrider Foundation, explained that surfers often do a conscious “cost-benefit analysis” before deciding to get in the water.

Larenas added: “At the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve we get classrooms of kids coming down here to see the tide pools, and there’s a sign posted on the creek that the water is unfit for human contact,” referring to the spot in Moss Beach. “And you’ll see parents picnicking, kids washing their hands in the creek.”

Attempting to reconcile water quality concerns with financial realities, the City/County Association of Governments Board voted to approve the formation of a water coordination committee at its Nov. 10 meeting.

In contrast to mercury, PCB chemicals – polychlorinated biphenyls – are a relatively new subject for abatement efforts. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the chemicals were extensively used as ingredients in utility transformers, hydraulic fluids, flame retardants, plastic-softening additives and various building materials. Sealants around windows, doors, concrete joints and floors will be the focus of county attention to start.

According to the State Water Control Resources Board, “high levels of PCBs could harm the liver, digestive tract and nerves; and could affect development, reproduction and the immune system.” In addition, the American Cancer Society lists PCBs as known human carcinogens.

These long-term health impacts are most often associated with eating contaminated fish.

Erica Maharg, managing attorney of the nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper, works to reduce the public health risks associated with PCBs and mercury in fish. “All across the Bay you have warnings not to eat the fish,” she said, but people continue fishing for sport and sustenance. To Maharg, “taking care of [the stormwater] problem is going to be key” to both ensuring water quality is high and Bay fish are healthy to eat again.

PCBs and mercury are not being released to the extent they were in the past. Aside from problems outside of San Mateo County’s control – such as wind-deposited mercury from East Asian power plants all along the West Coast – there seems to be consensus on how best to keep at least these two pollutants out of stormwater, from a technical standpoint.

Completing the Stormwater Resource Plan will make the county eligible for certain state grants in the future, but it will not solve financial troubles for local governments. If the legal dispute goes Sacramento’s way, Fabry imagines the county will be forced “to look at either a property-related fee or special tax” to generate revenue.

Further complicating the matter, he says stormwater management is singled-out by the state constitution as needing voter approval for any related taxes – different than water, sewer or garbage services. This reality makes the upcoming court ruling all the more consequential for stormwater management efforts in San Mateo County, and counties across California.

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