Rain Drains Cause Concern All Over Berkeley

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 07, 2006

In Berkeley, when it rains, it floods. 

“During any moderate rainstorm, there are currently over 500 trouble spots throughout the city that have continual problems of blockages, failures, or flooding,” City Manager Phil Kamlarz wrote in his 2006 Budget Report. 

The city’s storm water system, built 80 years ago or so, can’t direct all the rain water to the bay as it was designed to do. The often-abused and sometimes broken system is “undersized and undercapacity,” according to Claudette Ford, interim Public Works director. 

There’s only one definitive solution, said Councilmember Linda Maio: new taxes must be raised to overhaul the system. 

In her flood-prone West Berkeley council district, people working on Second Street paddled canoes in the street during a December storm, Maio said. 

The March rainy season, which dropped 9.42 inches of intermittent rain on Berkeley, caused the storm drains to back up, but in a less dramatic fashion.  

“It’s our turn now to step up and pass a measure to fund the rehab of storm drains,” Maio said. 

The system is made up of 78 miles of pipes, manholes, about 2,000 catch basins that trap the water and direct it through pipes to the Bay and some 4,000 storm drains that catch the water and direct it through culverts that move the water underground to the other side of the street. The water exits the outlets and descends along the street to storm drains that take it to the Bay. 

The system backs up when the old pipes break and because the pipes are too narrow to handle the quantity of water. People further reduce the system capacity by clogging the drains—pouring motor oil, sweeping leaves and throwing plastic bottles into them. 

The city and county try to educate the public to be better storm drains stewards by distributing literature and talking to people at fairs and festivals. They also advertise and make presentations at schools. Thirty-one people have signed up for the city’s adopt-a-drain program, where volunteers clean out drains near their homes. 

Businesses also pollute the storm drain system. Restaurant workers sometimes pour grease into the drains or allow garbage into the system. 

About a year ago, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a violation to the city, demanding that it do a better job policing its restaurants. Since that time, the city’s improved in this area, according to Dale Bowyer, senior water resource control engineer, with the RWQCD. 

Another part of the solution is street sweeping, which removes debris from the streets, which would otherwise go into storm drains. The sweeping takes place only in the flatlands. 

However, “the last budget cuts caused the Public Works Department to cut one of the street sweeper positions,” according to Public Works Commissioner Carlene St. John.  

onsequently, they stopped sweeping in West Berkeley, she said, adding, “The Public Works budget keeps getting squeezed.”  

Also, Maio pointed out that the city owns “only one vacuum unit to get the gunk out” of the drains. At times, they contract for additional help. 

Another reason the system doesn’t work is asphalt. As the city has built up, and roads and other surfaces have been paved, there is less soil available for rain absorption. 

“The more asphalt there is, the more the water goes into the storm drain system,” St. John said. 

The city needs a new way of looking at the storm drain problem, said Jennifer Pearson, co-chair of Friends of Strawberry Creek. That approach would go beyond fixing a broken culvert here or cleaning out a pipe there. The city needs to address storm drain needs in the context of protecting the watershed—its groundwater, creeks, soil and the Bay. 

Whatever the specifics of the solution, it will be expensive. Berkeley residents already pay a storm water fee of about $17 for the average homeowner with a 1,900 square-foot home. 

The city manager’s budget report said that reconstructing the system would mean obtaining $1 million annually from new taxes. That would cost the average homeowner an additional $25 each year. 

“We’ve been trying to get the council to put (a storm water tax) on the ballot the last three elections,” said Commissioner St. John. “It isn’t a lot of money.” 

Maio said she’s ready to call on the council to support putting the tax before the voters. It would have to be passed by a two-thirds majority..