City of San Diego assessed $3.2 million for failing to protect waterways from loose sediment

By on August 11, 2017
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The city of San Diego has agreed to a $3.2 million assessment by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to settle allegations that the city failed to protect local streams and coastal lagoons from loose sediment. The purported violations pertain to construction sites within the city, occurring between 2010-2015, in waterways from Los Peñasquitos Lagoon to the north to the Tijuana River Estuary in the south.

Runoff water from construction sites can contain abnormally high levels of sediment. Sediment can act as a binder ad carry toxic matter such as metals, pesticides, and other synthetic organic chemicals. These elements can harm the environment and smother aquatic animals and habitats, alter or obstruct flows resulting in flooding, and reduce water clarity, which harms the ability of organisms to breathe, find food and refuge, and their reproduction. Construction sites disturb land and often expose large areas of bare soil. Stormwater at construction sites can carry runoff with large amounts of sediment into nearby waterways.

As a part of the agreement, the San Diego Water Board is permitting the city to use 50 percent of the total penalty to fund four Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) in the San Diego Region. The $1,610,332 will be used for SEPs including: Los Peñasquitos Lagoon inlet restoration; San Diego River restoration and Arundo removal; a bioassessment tool development project; and, a Chollas Creek restoration opportunities assessment.

“The city has developed robust ordinances and stormwater standards and needs to improve upon its implementation and enforcement of them throughout the city,” David Gibson, San Diego Water Board executive officer said. “Together with changes in its implementation of its stormwater program, these restoration projects will go a long way toward addressing several water quality impairments within the city.”

The other 50 percent of the Administrative Civil Liability penalty is earmarked for remediation of pollution in state waters through the state’s Cleanup and Abatement Account. The state Legislature created the cleanup account to provide funds to public agencies for the cleanup and/or abatement of pollution when there are no responsible parties available to be held accountable for the needed work. Public agencies eligible for Cleanup and Abatement Account funds include certain nonprofit organizations and tribal governments that have the authority to clean up or abate the effects of waste and serve a disadvantaged community.

While working with the water board, the city of San Diego instituted several initiatives to rectify their internal deficiencies. These included augmenting ongoing training requirements for inspectors, significantly increasing the number of city inspectors responsible for overseeing compliance with ordinances at construction sites, and improving the communication and coordination among departments with construction oversight responsibility. Implementing better interdepartmental communication and coordination included development of a unified construction site database.

“Despite the fact that the San Diego Water Board has been working cooperatively with the city for years to address impairments in the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon and the Tijuana Estuary, San Diego is alleged to have failed to conduct adequate site inspections, prevent sediment erosion, and enforce its own water quality ordinances at private construction sites,” said Gibson. “The Water Board found the water quality ordinances the city council had adopted were not being implemented in the field because inspectors were poorly trained in erosion control and were unwilling, or unable, to take enforcement actions. It was also discovered that city departments did not coordinate basic activities to protect water quality.”

The San Diego Water Board’s municipal stormwater permit requires management of sediment during construction to avoid the type of discharges that occurred. The maximum potential penalty for the violations could have been as high as $22,680,000.