City Council discusses plan to improve Berkeley's aging water infrastructure

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OCTOBER 25, 2011

In order to improve water drainage within the city of Berkeley, a newly developed plan that aims to bridge a $700,000 gap between revenue and expenditures for the city’s water management program was presented to the Berkeley City Council for review and public comment at a special meeting Tuesday night.

Besides offering a comprehensive list of strategies to address water-related issues such as the aging storm drains in the city, flooding threats, water quality, rainwater reuse and stream habitats, the Watershed Management Plan outlines four possible funding scenarios to help the city pay for the needed improvements.

Lorin Jensen, supervising civil engineer for the city’s Public Works Department, said in an interview that many cities across the country have been working toward developing these types of plans in recent years, due to the increased demands for water regulation presented by expanding populations and industry.

The plan — originally suggested by the city’s Creeks Task Force, which operated from November 2004 and May 2006 — has been in development since 2008.

Past issues with flooding and the decaying infrastructure of the city’s drainage system prompted the need to develop a plan capable of providing solutions.

The plan detailed hydraulic modeling for the Potter and Cordornices watersheds, which represent the range of watershed demographics within Berkeley. The models implemented systems to control drainage by rerouting flows or using green infrastructure such as bioretention cells to retain and filter runoff.

The city pays for these programs through funds gathered from the Clean Storm Water Fee — an unchanged $50 fee Berkeley property owners have paid each year since 1991 if they contribute to storm water runoff on their property — as well as a fee paid by UC Berkeley to the city each year to cover storm drain costs. Together these fees raise about $2.1 million each year, compared to the $2.8 spent annually by the city in upkeep of storm drains. Over the years, the city’s general fund has covered the leftover costs.

The plan discussed four options that the city could adopt to help fund watershed projects in the future. The first plan would not change the $50 fee that residents currently pay for runoff while the other three plans progressively raise that amount in order to make the city’s drainage infrastructure more sustainable.

Almost all of the council members expressed their praise for the report’s clarity and comprehensive explanation of the water-related issues Berkeley is facing.

“This is actually very exciting,” said Councilmember Linda Maio at the meeting. “This is the beginning of being able to go out and talk to our constituents about these issues.”

Several council members said the plan that would raise the fee to $174 per year seemed to be the most reasonable option, as it would raise $3.1 million annually for the fund — covering the $700,000 shortfall in funds for water and storm drain management.

Without funding to make the necessary improvements over time, the city could potentially be subject to a fine from the Municipal Regional Permit, which monitors storm water discharges for cities throughout the state, in the future.

The plan will continue to be presented to various city departments and public meetings to gather input and then make adjustments or improvements.

“Tonight we are presenting version 1.0,” said Andrew Clough, director of Public Works, at the meeting. “We realize that even though a lot of work has gone into this project, it is still a plan, and it is still moving forward.”

According to Clough, there is no estimated timeline for when a definitive decision would be made by the City Council regarding the plan.

“It’s important that people understand the issues,” said Mayor Tom Bates at the meeting. “It’s not a problem until it rains, and by then it’s too late.”

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OCTOBER 25, 2011