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New: Berkeley has Long term Chronic Problems with its Storm Drain System --and Lacks Funds to Fix Them

By Thomas Lord
Saturday October 15, 2011 - 08:48:00 AM

On October 25, the Berkeley City Council will meet in special session to receive the 2011 Watershed Management Plan from the Public Works Department. The full report is available on the City's web site in the agenda for the special session.

The always-evolving report is the city's comprehensive overview of the state of Berkeley's watershed. It explains that "The mission of the Watershed Management Plan (WMP) is to promote a healthier balance between the urban environment and the natural ecosystem, including the San Francisco Bay." The report aims to help guide city efforts to protect water quality, reduce urban flooding, preserve natural waterways and habitat, and re-use rainwater as a resource.

There is much to digest in the weighty report (100 pages plus another 86 pages of appendices). There is far too much to simply summarize here. Nevertheless, we found off the bat a few facts we think our readers will be glad know:

The city's storm drain pipe infrastructure comprises nearly "100 miles of buried pipelines, and their attendant appurtenances."

Much of that infrastructure is "over 80 years old and well past its useful life expectancy.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the state issues conditional permits to cities that discharge stormwater into the San Francisco Bay. The conditions of Berkeley's Municipal Regional Stormwater permit (MRP) include requirements for new "trash capture" features - designed to prevent trash from reaching the bay - by 2014 (with requirements for further improvements expected subsequently). It is unclear where the money will come from for this, although Berkeley is initially participating in a $5 million dollar pilot study funded by the Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This study will cover only a few test-case trash capture devices. The city's experience with these test devices will help determine which technology to commit to across the entire system. 

The MRP notwithstanding, the age of Berkeley's storm drains presents problems all its own. 

One example is the Potter Basin, a watershed that encompasses nearly everything south of University. 

The city's computational model predicts areas of "chronic nuisance flooding" in Potter Basin and these models accord well with experience. The model predicts problem spots already known to exist such as Fulton at Derby, College at Dwight, MLK between Russell and Woolsey, and San Pablo between Ward and Murray. 

The study notes: "Thus 10-year frequency storms in combination with high tides will cause flooding in the Potter watershed [as far upland as Woolsey near Adeline].

The estimated cost to upgrade the decrepit system while installing larger pipes is nearly 53 million dollars - and that's just for the Potter Basin, not all of Berkeley. 

Meanwhile, the Public Works Department's budget is being cut in the face of a projected deficit of $3M to $4M in 2012. 

Apparently the residents of Berkeley have got themselves a serious fixer-upper: lots of historic charm but skyrocketing expenses to keep it from falling apart. 

This piece also appears in The Berkeley Brief, a new print newsletter edited and distributed by the author.