Beyond Potholes: Why storm drains should matter

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February 23, 2013 by Omar Passons

From Logan Hicks Flickr photostream

From Logan Hicks Flickr photostream

Update 5/6/13: The above photo and other work from the photographer can be found here, I used the Google, but now you don’t have to.

I am not an a quasi environmentalist. I like building stuff and know a few environmentally conscious real estate developers. But as we turn the corner on building and maintaining our city’s public property, we need to talk a bit more about paying to improve the property we can’t see every day, like our storm drain system.  If we aren’t careful, we’ll have the prettiest streets to drive and ride our bikes on while the property we can’t see crumbles beneath us.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s talk.

The cover photo is from this guy named Logan Hicks’ Flikr Stream.  I googled images of San Diego storm drains and this was first.  It appears to be near Home & Market in Southeast, but I haven’t been able to go check it out.  Anyway, it’s a cool photo that starts down the path for this conversation.  The big picture here is that we should be paying more attention to the costs–both to budget and every day life–of our eroding storm drain system.  Everybody has heard about (or driven/rode their bike over) a street with a pothole in it.  Potholes and cracks in the street are easy to see and feel.  We have elected officials running for office on platforms to repair potholes.  Our newspapers and local news channels lament the woeful state of our roads and when I walked neighborhoods during the last election cycle across the city lots and lots of people talked about the roads.  This is understandable because, well, they are pretty bad.  But while all this attention on what we can see and feel is okay, and certainly politically popular, it comes at the expense of a very real unseen issue: our underground system.

Focus on street resurface is not unlike a skin care regiment

Focus on street resurface is not unlike a skin care process

The situation is alot like if we had a very strong, very methodical skincare ritual that involved lots of loofahs and night creams and special cleansing soaps.  Every day you go through your ritual to keep your skin in great shape.  And, like the photo above, even though these things aren’t super expensive, they have a cost and you can sort of see the impact of “investing” in these products.  Now let’s say you had this great ritual but you never exercised and ate delicious apple fritters every morning.  You’d have the most beautiful, smooth skin on the planet with little muscles or bone health beneath the surface to keep you moving.  This is not unlike our city.  We spent a fair amount of time letting our city’s skin–it’s surface streets and sidewalks–get pretty rough.  And now we’ve got an increased focus that we can all see, which is great and popular and pretty. But what’s happening underneath the surface?

From an incredible site called Girl Chases Globe, really impressive photo collection

From an incredible site called Girl Chases Globe, really impressive photo collection

This photo is from Shannon Switzer of Girl Chases Globe.  I googled this one, too.  She has a whole photo array of San Diego’s storm drains, its very impressive.  She’s also apparently quite the traveler and compassionate human being.  But I digress.  The point is this photo shows a less flattering picture of what’s under the surface and when we start talking about the actual numbers and costs it becomes very real, very quickly what we are up against.

Actual photo of sheet used for calculation of stormwater backlog as of February 2012

Actual photo of sheet used for calculation of stormwater backlog as of February 2012

After over a year of trying, I got the above numbers from a very helpful employee in the City’s Transportation and Stormwater Department.  There was a recent flap in the local media about the role of Public Information Officer’s (called “PIO’s”) in sharing readily available public information and what constituted “journalism”.  Fortunately, our city has several hardworking, earnest employees who really just want to help make our city a better place.  And sharing information about the public property we all pay for is an important part of that work.  I’m not a journalist or a blogger, but instead just a civically engaged citizen whose “agenda” (if you can call it that) is to encourage better, more well informed decisions by all involved.   So the information above are the “numbers.”  What I mean is, in the infrastructure subcommittee meeting on Monday chaired by Councilmember Mark Kersey (agenda here) the City will give an update of the deferred capital backlog.  That’s a fancy way of talking about the public property that needs to be fixed or replaced.

Here’s a handy PowerPoint presentation about that public property.

What the numbers in that photo above refer to is the $235 Million dollars in Storm drain-related backlog (slide four of the PowerPoint).  For the other types of public property our city paid people to go out and do a “condition assessment” of those things.  That’s kind of like a home inspection.  But for the storm drain system they had to estimate the condition. NOTE: ONE REASON TO ESTIMATE INSTEAD OF INSPECT IS THAT IT COSTS ABOUT $30,000/MILE TO INSPECT PIPES AND WE HAVE OVER 750 MILES OF THEM.  Here’s how the estimate got us to $235 Million:

  • 7 miles of pipe that was 90 years or older
  • 40 miles of Corrugated Metal Pipe (it breaks alot, so is prioritized for replacement)
  • 133 miles of pipe to rehabilitate
  • $5 Million to fix 14 pump stations

A couple pieces of information are useful here. First, the stormwater department does perform quite a bit of maintenance.  Second, that department estimates a pipe should last 90 years (that’s not a hard and fast number, but it’s their estimate based on experience and industry practice for this area).  Pipe costs $3 Million/Mile to replace and $750,000/Mile to rehabilitate.  By contrast, to resurface a city street costs between $15-25,000/Mile (very cool, easy to read source for this here).  You can see why it might make political and/or financial sense to focus on the much cheaper, much more visible repairs.  Fortunately, it seems Councilmember Kersey’s committee is demanding that we look beyond the obvious fixes and focus on a holistic picture.  We as citizens probably ought to follow suit. For those of you accountant types who are checking my math, the final $235MM number from the slide I mentioned includes all the above minus $11 Million that the department got in money from a bond issue (a topic for another day, just go with it). One other note, there’s a large section of pipe that is less than 90 years old that we really don’t watch or try to fix.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the pipe is only 50 years old and it’s supposed to last for 90 years, there may not be a good reason to spend all the money to see how it’s doing.  The other point to notice is the large spike in miles of pipe around the 60-year old mark.  If that pipe starts to fail for some reason the size of this problem will jump considerably and quickly.

Taken from OB Rag site, a local San Diego news source in Ocean Beach

Taken from OB Rag site, a local San Diego news source in Ocean Beach

I don’t want to confuse anyone that this is just about numbers and making our city’s budget work.  If you reach the conclusion that we need a bigger investment in our storm drain system because of the cost data, that’s great.  But there’s a very real human cost and cost to the environment to understand as well.  I took that photo off the OB Rag site, which although I don’t personally read I understand has a great deal of environmentally passionate people.  The occasional difficulty in this discussion is sometimes people’s passions drive them to be unwilling to have earnest conversations about these topics. This happened recently with the coastal height limit (articles here and here, if you missed it).  I was born here, but had no role in the law that created the limit.  I think it’s reasonable after 40 years to be willing to talk about it and consider if it needs some poking and prodding.  Doesn’t make me an anti-environment zealot, just means that now that I am an adult and care about my city in a way I didn’t in elementary school, I’m not opposed to rational discussions about the impact of regulations.  Or, in the case of stormwater, a rational conversation about the impact of neglect.  Urban run-off from storm drains matters (see).  Not just because of financial impacts, but human ones as well.

Took this last year at some local convention

Took this last year at some local convention based on American Public Health Association campaign

The American Public Health Association makes a compelling point in the image above (read this).  It relates to Chollas Creek and the area surrounding it, which is an increasingly lovely area that still needs a whole lot of attention.  I’ve gone to the park over there for a jog (who am I kidding, a mostly walk with occasional bursts of jog).  My in-laws take their toddler there to run around quite a bit.  But as this report indicates, dissolved metals are really causing the creek itself to be a dangerous place for animals and people. Also, this interview with Leslie Reynolds of Groundwork San Diego (lots of good information about Chollas Creek in that link) helps bring the human issues into focus.  It’s not pleasant to think about areas with poor residents getting less attention than areas with wealthy residents.  But on some level it has happened in history and acknowledging that hopefully helps inform changes to our system.  Acknowledging that reality doesn’t mean we need to dwell on it or create a class warfare that pits someone’s “us” against someone else’s “them.”  This city belongs to all of us.  We work here, we raise children here, we drink craft beer and eat locally grown food along 30th Street’s restaurant row here and we’ll fix our public property here together, as a collection of concerned San Diegans.

My primary purpose for posts like these is so that residents and policymakers and anyone else who cares can really understand some of the underlying trade-offs we must make together.  My community wants a few new parks, but depending on the quality of our stormdrains and other public property, we might decide that these other things are less important for now.  At the very least, understanding the issues that exist will put us in a better position to have honest and informed conversations.  So even if you can’t make it down to a city hall meeting (I know, parking stinks down there and, you know, people have jobs), you can watch on your computer here or on Channel 24 on your TV. If you take issue with the numbers or have any helpful feedback, please send it over.  Thanks for stopping by.

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