‘Green Streets’ Mean Cleaner Water for San Mateo C/CAG

photo of natural drainage along sidewalk

When Matt Fabry looks at a street in San Mateo County, he doesn’t just see a surface that conveys cars. He sees an entire system of water travel – stormwater travel, to be precise.

Fabry leads one of the most innovative stormwater management programs in California, housed at the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County (C/CAG). It’s the only association of governments in California to handle both stormwater and traffic congestion management. Fabry’s job is to ensure that streets help reduce pollution flowing to the San Francisco Bay.

“Being in this field, it drives me crazy that I worry about the water my kids come in contact with,” said Fabry, manager of the San Mateo Countywide Water Pollution Prevention Program. “We would like to live in a world where kids can play in the water without having to worry about pollution.”

Growing Greener Over Three Decades

Stormwater management in California is the responsibility of cities and counties. About every five years, they are issued permits from Regional Water Quality Control Boards. In every case except one – San Mateo – counties play a crucial coordinating role, monitoring water quality and follow-up activities to ensure cities meet their stormwater goals.

“They are unique… A lot of work C/CAG is doing on green streets is really about water quality”

– Karen Cowan, Executive Director of the California Stormwater Quality Association.

But C/CAG stands apart.

Since 1990, when the framework for today’s stormwater rules were rolled out, C/CAG has served as a stormwater management hub to the “spokes” of San Mateo’s 21 jurisdictions – the county and 20 municipalities.  Because C/CAG also manages transportation congestion, it can more easily identify and act upon “twofers” that improve both transportation and stormwater management infrastructure.

“They are unique,” said Karen Cowan, executive director of the California Stormwater Quality Association. “It is all in one house, all built-in. There is a huge overlap between transportation and stormwater management. A lot of work C/CAG is doing on green streets is really about water quality.”

Among the services C/CAG’s stormwater program offers to member agencies are long term planning,technical assistance, water quality monitoring and outreach and engagement.

Transportation Intertwined with Stormwater Pollution

Unlike tap and toilet water, which is conveyed through sewer systems, cleaned at wastewater treatment plants, and discharged safely back into waterways, stormwater runoff is dumped back into watersheds without being treated. As such, it represents a major source of pollution in local creeks, the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

About ten years ago, cities began being required to eliminate trash from storm drains with filtration systems that capture everything down to a 5 millimeter diameter, the size of a cigarette butt. But chemicals and small pollutants still flow through. The San Francisco Bay has faced historic problems with mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a now-banned product used widely until around 1980) which accumulate in fish at concentrations that make them unsafe to eat.

With climate change and drought, cities and counties are increasingly turning to green infrastructure as a way to make better use of stormwater

Transportation in general, and vehicles and pavement in particular, are a major source of stormwater pollution. As water flows over asphalt, it picks up copper from brake pads, zinc from tires (both of which find their way into fish), along with oil. Other pollutants pose a threat as well, including chemicals, paints, and trash that can simply be dumped illegally into public drainpipes. These pollutants degrade surface waters, making them unsafe for drinking, fishing, swimming and other activities.

‘Twofers’ – Safer Streets and Cleaner Water

With climate change and drought, cities and counties are increasingly turning to green infrastructure as a way to make better use of stormwater.  C/CAG’s water program is a leader in this practice, having supported projects that add rain gardens to parking lots, linear planters along sidewalks and bulb-outs filled with plantings instead of concrete. (See this story map.)

For example, C/CAG awarded $2 million to its member agencies in integrated Safe Routes to School and stormwater funding for ten pilot projects. The projects marry active transportation and stormwater goals, demonstrating that green infrastructure can be cost-effectively integrated with traditional transportation projects to enhance safety and reduce pollution.

C/CAG awarded $2 million to its member agencies in integrated Safe Routes to School and stormwater funding for ten pilot projects

Whereas a typical active transportation project might add flashing lights to pedestrian crossings or speed bumps, the ones undertaken by the C/CAG pilot strategically used plantings and greenery to provide permeable surfaces where stormwater can be captured and filtered by the soil.  In addition to creating capital projects, participating municipalities adopted infrastructure plans that will help them shift from gray to green and achieve a specific pollutant load reduction by 2040.

Last year, C/CAG received one of just 12 California Resilience Challenge grants to develop resilient schoolyard concepts showing how green infrastructure on campuses can reduce runoff, improve water quality, reduce heat island impacts, and provide an integrated educational curriculum opportunity.

Innovative Funding Sources

Funding for stormwater is a perennial challenge. Unlike wastewater, which is often funded through hook-up fees, cities and counties largely pay for stormwater management from their General Funds, meaning stormwater priorities are pitted against myriad other needs.

The C/CAG situation is different, due to its unique role as an agency that covers a number of issues including stormwater and transportation congestion management (C/CAG also serves as the airport land use commission and works on energy and housing issues).

C/CAG’s stormwater work is funded by fees assessed on the property tax roll (about $1.6 million a year) and from a portion of the county’s $10 vehicle registration fee (about $750,000 a year). The latter fee was originally enabled by 2004 legislation (AB 1546), which made San Mateo the only county in the state to have a vehicle registration fee that can be split between congestion and stormwater management, and subsequently put in place by voters via C/CAG’s 2010 Measure M.

As a result, C/CAG does not need to ask member agencies for funds to undertake its stormwater work. “It’s nice that it’s not a big fight every year,” Fabry said.

Still, needs far outstrip available funds. For that reason, Fabry said C/CAG is considering pursuing a countywide fee for stormwater. Because C/CAG operates under a joint powers agreement, it has the authority to pursue a balloted countywide stormwater fee to replace the need for each jurisdiction to levy its own fee. (This is similar to a solution in Los Angeles County, where a property tax approved by voters secured $285 million a year for stormwater improvements; the funds are split between member agencies and the region to undertake the work.)

“It’s so much more efficient to have C/CAG serve a leadership role on stormwater, we are fortunate to have this system,” said Hillsborough Councilmember Marie Chuang, who also serves as Chair of the C/CAG board.

Looking Ahead, Advice for Others

C/CAG’s stormwater program continues to grow in new directions –  from climate modeling to innovative school education projects – all of which benefit from being administered through an association of governments where each of the 21 member agencies has an equal say in what gets done, Fabry said.

Asked what advice he has for agencies considering green infrastructure, Fabry offered:

  • Connect stormwater and transportation. Streets accommodate many different modes – cars, bikes, trucks. But they are also the primary conveyance for stormwater, contributing up to 50% of a city’s impervious surface. Streets contribute significantly to runoff. Streets are also filled with pollution and chemicals from cars, so when the water flows over the pavement, it is picking up the pollutants and carrying them into waterways.
  • Promote the efficiencies of collaboration. For example, C/CAG undertakes public outreach and water quality monitoring for its member agencies in a manner that is more cost-effective than if each municipality did the work themselves.
  • Ensure participants have an equal voice in crafting plans. This is achieved at C/CAG because the 20 municipalities and the county are equal partners in ensuring stormwater work is a success.
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