Stormwater Management and Governance in San Francisco

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An excerpt from a recently published journal article on governance of urban stormwater systems in future cities….

San Francisco provides a relevant example to understand governance changes related to future stormwater systems. The San Francisco Bay Area has a total population of over 7 million people in nine counties and is dominated by San Francisco Estuary, where the Pacific Ocean meets the inland freshwater rivers. Together, the Bay Area counties surround and drain into the San Francisco Estuary, giving regional implications to stormwater management.

Management decisions regarding stormwater are made by national, state, and regional agencies, municipal departments and utilities, neighborhoods, and landowners (descriptive table in paper).  Stormwater regulations are mandated by federal and state laws, including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (FWPCA), the Clean Water Act of 1977 (CWA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1987 (SDWA). In California, water rights, water quality and pollution control are administered by the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board). The State Water Board coordinates planning, permitting and enforcement with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Bay Area Water Board), which administers and monitors compliance with federal and state laws, including issuance of NPDES permits for the area. Many planning documents outline goals for the region, including the Basin Plan (Regional Water Board), the municipal-level Urban Water Management Plans (municipalities and utilities), the Bay Area Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (Bay Area Water Agencies), the San Francisco Sewer System Master Plan (SFPUC), the Watershed and Environmental Improvement Program Report (SFPUC) and the Better Street Plan (San Francisco Planning Department).

In the city of San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is a municipal department responsible for water, wastewater and stormwater operations. SFPUC is divided into separate divisions and “enterprises,” with enterprises for water supply, power generation and wastewater. The Wastewater Enterprise has primary responsibility for stormwater management. As with other North American cities, San Francisco has increased planning to integrate green infrastructure into existing land-use and drainage systems. In 2006, SFPUC led the drafting of the Sewer System Master Plan (SSMP) to establish long-term system goals and spending for the resulting Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP). In addition to traditional investments to upgrade aging infrastructure, the document included LID and flood control as key goals. In 2011, the agency began conducting an Urban Watershed Assessment to understand how to integrate green and grey infrastructure as part of the SSIP. The Urban Watershed Assessment process has reached out to all city agencies to define challenges, develop and evaluate alternatives, and provide recommendations by 2013. The Wastewater Enterprise also houses the Urban Watershed Management Program, which conducts various cross-sector planning and coordination activities related to permitting, enforcement, education and incentive programs for city land owners. This small group is an interdisciplinary mix of engineers, landscape architects and urban planners, with backgrounds in permitting, grassroots communications, stormwater design and environmental planning.

The activities of the Urban Watershed Management Program are part of a growing focus for the city on watershed-level activities. From 2007 to 2009, SFPUC conducted a series of planning charrettes that brought together experts to develop strategies and recommendations for green infrastructure implementation in various watersheds throughout the city. SFPUC also completes an annual Watershed and Environmental Improvement Program Report to highlight activities for watershed preservation and restoration. These activities contributed to the recent release in 2012 of an Urban Watersheds Framework document, which provides guidance for future stormwater management in the city through integration of distributed (green) and centralized (grey) infrastructure. It describes the city’s plan to evaluate expenditures for the Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP), which is the implementation program for the Sewer System Master Plan.

The integrated nature of SFPUC’s Urban Watershed Planning efforts requires the agency to collaborate with other city departments. Within the San Francisco municipal government, many agencies have stormwater management responsibilities. The Municipal Planning Department, which is responsible for urban planning and historic preservation, developed the Better Streets Plan in 2006 to assess opportunities to increase pedestrian safety, reduce pollution, enhance city beautification and promote smarter growth patterns. The region’s municipal transit agencies, BART and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), manage runoff in transit areas. The San Francisco Department of Environment leads programs in climate adaptation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean air, zero-waste, green building and more. The Department of Public Works maintains city infrastructure, including streets and public rights-of-way. Along with the elected leaders, this collection of agencies has roles in truly integrated water management and stormwater management. Ratified documents such as the Better Streets Plan and the Sewer System Master Plan provide the basis for collaboration activities, which are then codified through formal agreements between agencies to justify use of agency resources. Several agency and political leaders have pushed this approach, but the progressive attitude of city residents provides necessary popular motivation. Such interagency activities also require tools for coordination. The city has developed a central database for maintenance scheduling that most agencies use regularly to reduce duplicative or conflicting efforts in maintenance and construction.

The size of the San Francisco Bay Area and the cross-sector and multi-jurisdictional nature of stormwater quality necessitates coordinated management at several levels. New approaches for regional scale planning and green infrastructure integration are driving changes in governance. Rather than having the institutions at the center, the program and its goals lie at the heart of the approach. Activities such as SFPUC’s Urban Watershed Management Program and Urban Watershed Assessment bring together professionals and managers focused on municipal issues but across multiple departments. Through urban watershed planning efforts, SFPUC facilitates interagency discussions that seek to align infrastructure development with social and environmental goals focused on cross-cutting issues. To date, the city agencies, especially SFPUC, have made progress to develop issue-focused plans for streets and watersheds that provide a forum for cooperation and break down traditional bureaucratic processes.

Even with these institutional connections, however, challenges still exist. Coordination between agencies can consume time and resources, especially during early stages. Merging different bureaucratic procedures and funding streams is often difficult due to adopted policy and habits. Agencies must develop specific policy and funding mechanisms to justify early investments. In some instances, conflicting laws require significant time and effort to resolve. Working through such issues requires coordination across many departments, which also consumes available resources. While tackling issues of integration can have long-term system benefits, it requires scarce time and resources. In addition, stormwater governance is influenced by legacies of past infrastructure and regulatory policies. For instance, areas outside of the downtown core often have different management issues because of different land use densities. From a scientific perspective, however, improving water quality in the San Francisco Estuary is a regional issue. The watershed framework provides the opportunity for more holistic management, but other necessary (yet potentially insufficient) components including strong leadership and funding streams.


San Francisco Bay Basin (Region 2) Water Quality Control Plan (Basin Plan); California Regional Water Quality Control Board San Francisco Bay Region: San Francisco, CA, USA, 2011.

Task 800: Technical Memorandum No. 809, Low Impact Design Modeling; City and County of San Francisco 2030 Sewer System Master Plan; San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: San Francisco, CA, USA, 2009.

San Francisco Sewer System Master Plan: Summary Report (Final Draft) 2010; San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, City and County of San Francisco: San Francisco, CA, USA, 2010.

Citywide Summary Report (2010): Urban Watershed Planning Charrettes; San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: San Francisco, CA, USA, 2010.

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