Taking Water Pollution By Storm

By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in Windows on the Waterfront, February 2003]
To those of us with family and friends living on the East Coast, it’s been a difficult winter to avoid gloating about the relative good fortune we enjoy here in San Francisco. Sure, we’ve endured a few big rainstorms during the fall and early winter, but El Nino seems fairly tame compared to the fierce wintry onslaught that pummeled our easterly fellow citizens. Not that we’re unsympathetic, of course. But let’s face it-there isn’t a non-native one of us who doesn’t enjoy hearing a little envy from the hometowns we left behind. There’s certainly no harm in thinking that winter weather is just one more reason we’ve got it better here, right?

Well, the truth is we’ve got our own winter woes to contend with here in San Francisco.

And if they’re not quite so immediately disruptive as the snowbound airports and shuttered schools we’ve been hearing about on the national news all winter, they’re no less serious cause for concern in terms of their lasting impact on our environment.

When winter rainstorms take their toll on the City’s drainage system, the long-term consequences constitute what is arguably San Francisco’s most pressing environmental concern. In fact, storm water runoff represents perhaps the most significant means by which toxins pollute our regional hydrology, carrying such dangerous contaminants as PCBs, petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides, mercury, copper and nickel from city streets and lots into the surrounding bay and ocean-as well as into our interior watersheds.

The phenomenon is hardly restricted to San Francisco, of course. But as the city whose central location and namesake bay defines one of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions, the problem poses unique challenges for the City and County of San Francisco. And it demands that the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office take a leadership role for the critically important task of meeting those challenges effectively.

To address the environmental threat of storm water runoff and sewage disposal nationwide, the U.S. EPA administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a water quality permitting process whose far-reaching regulations touch on several areas of government in San Francisco. As authorized under two complex National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits, San Francisco’s combined sewage and storm water collection system is unique in California. While historical concern has been focused on the treatment of sewage during storm events, the combined sewer system constructed and operated by the S.F. Public Utilities Commission for that purpose treats virtually every drop of storm water to a degree far in excess of the efforts of any other municipality in California.

In areas of San Francisco that are not served by the combined sewer system, the S.F. Public Utilities Commission, the Port of San Francisco and the Department of Recreation and Parks all have facilities subject to federal storm water permit requirements. Treasure Island and Hunter’s Point Shipyard will also fall under San Francisco’s permitting obligations with the EPA once those properties are conveyed to the City. In addition, federal storm water control regulations impose specific responsibilities on a number of other city departments-including the Department of Building Inspection, the Department of Public Works, the Planning Department, the Redevelopment Department and MUNI. These interdepartmental responsibilities exist in combined sewer areas as well.

In short, to protect our environment from the threats of storm water runoff, the City has a multitude of responsibilities across multiple departments and myriad federal regulations with which to comply.

It’s a good thing the City has good lawyers, too.

In my inaugural address just over a year ago, I noted that the City Attorney of San Francisco is a unique office. Representing every city department, agency and commission, it has enormous potential to be a unifying force for our common civic purpose. It’s hard to imagine a better example to demonstrate the success of that potential than meeting the EPA’s sewage discharge and storm water runoff requirements. Working with multiple city departments, officials and community organizations over the last several months, San Francisco will be submitting the City’s Storm Water Management Plan to the State Water Resources Control Board in early March. It will detail a comprehensive, coordinated response to federal mandates that includes Public Education, Public Participation, Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination, Construction Site Storm Water Runoff Control, Post Construction Storm Water Management and Pollution Prevention in Municipal Operations. In addition, the same staff, officials and community organizations are deeply involved in the complicated negotiation and renewal of the City’s combined sewer system discharge permits.

It’s a visionary plan. It’s also testimony to the hard work of several deputy city attorneys in my office who head up important aspects of environmental protection for the S.F. Public Utilities Commission and the Port of San Francisco, including John Roddy and Noreen Ambrose. What’s more, it’s a model for the kind of leadership my office will continue to exert on the many complex, multidisciplinary, interdepartmental challenges our City will continue to face in the future. After all, the City Attorney’s Office holds enormous potential as a unifying force for our common civic purpose. And few common purposes could be more important than a cleaner environment and a healthier regional ecosystem for all of us.

Dennis Herrera is City Attorney of San Francisco.