Editorials

Stormwater can’t go to waste in drought

Water flows into a storm drain in East Sacramento in 2013. The city is planning to test stormwater capture and reuse technologies as part of a massive upgrade of the storm drainage system.
Water flows into a storm drain in East Sacramento in 2013. The city is planning to test stormwater capture and reuse technologies as part of a massive upgrade of the storm drainage system. Sacramento Bee file

If the city of Sacramento is going to jack up customer rates to fund a major upgrade to its storm drainage system, officials have to think big. They have to think of the drought.

It’s not enough anymore just to fix storm drains in neighborhoods where streets flood most easily and to reduce pollution flowing into waterways, as important as those goals are.

The city, and others across California, must also expand programs to capture and reuse stormwater, a largely untapped source. Commercial properties can store excess rainfall and use it for irrigation. Homes could be encouraged to have rain barrels or cisterns to capture stormwater.

The city Department of Utilities says it plans to test various stormwater capture features and technologies to see how they fare in various soil types and other conditions, how well they can be maintained and whether the public accepts them before deciding how much to incorporate them in the storm drainage system upgrade. Unless there are insurmountable obstacles, the city ought to pursue stormwater reuse as aggressively as possible.

The city is surveying 23,000 customers, laying the groundwork for a possible ballot measure as soon as June 2016 on whether to increase storm drainage fees. Of Sacramento’s 135 drainage basins, upgrade plans have been drawn up for 53, including most of the high-need ones. More than $280 million in upgrade projects have been identified so far, according to the utilities department.

Starting June 1, Sacramento must cut its water use by 28 percent compared to 2013, 9 percentage points higher than it has achieved so far. Proper stormwater management could help. One inch of rain over the entire city equals nearly how much water it uses in a month.

As with other water conservation measures, Sacramento officials can look at Southern California for some lessons on capturing stormwater. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is drafting an even more aggressive plan that uses larger-scale projects such as wetland parks and spreading fields, smaller ones such as rain gardens and cisterns, plus permeable streets and pavement. It now captures about 27,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year to replenish groundwater supplies, and has a goal of as much as 280,000 acre-feet annually by the end of the century.

The State Water Resources Control Board – which has ordered urban water agencies to cut water use by between 8 percent and 36 percent toward a statewide goal of 25 percent – is also working on a stormwater strategy. A draft is due in June, with discussion by the board in August.

“While urban stormwater runoff is a significant contributor to water pollution in many parts of the state, it is also a largely untapped water source,” the board says.

As California’s population grows and climate change continues, stormwater could become even more important untapped source.

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