EL CERRITO -- The city is looking for ways to pay for the steps it must take to meet cleanliness requirements for water runoff released into the Bay.
El Cerrito spends $498,000 annually on its Clean Water program, about $106,000 more than it receives in parcel tax assessments earmarked for the program. The city is covering the deficits by borrowing from other city programs.
But the shortfall is expected to rise to $260,000 by 2014 because of increasingly stringent requirements imposed by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, said city engineer Jerry Bradshaw at a community meeting held to address clean water issues Monday evening.
El Cerrito and other Contra Costa cities have a regional permit for stormwater release. The 2012 Community Clean Water Initiative, a countywide parcel tax proposal to raise more money for clean water programs, failed last spring, leaving the county and cities to come up with their own fundraising plans.
El Cerrito could float a tax measure similar to the failed initiative. If it had passed, the initiative would have raised $220,000 annually in El Cerrito and reduced the city's shortfall to $40,000, Bradshaw said.
The initiative received 54 percent of the vote of El Cerrito property owners, 4 percent over the majority vote needed to pass, compared with about 40 percent countywide.
Water runoff into the Bay first became an issue with the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, Bradshaw said. But the focus of enforcement shifted in the late '80s from "point sources" of pollution, such as factories and sewer plants, to municipal sewer systems, bringing local and regional governments onto the radar screen.
Since then, regulators have put an increasing focus on limiting trash and pesticides and other pollutants that end up in the sewer system.
The rules have become more stringent since a new regional water release permit took effect in 2009.
Under the permit, cities are required to reduce trash in released water by 40 percent in 2014, 70 percent in 2017 and 100 percent in 2022.
"It means that by 2022, we will be in violation if even one cigarette butt is released," Bradshaw said.
El Cerrito is taking steps to meet these requirements by installing 30 to 40 screens in storm drains to stop garbage from going into the system. Other control measures under consideration include stepping up street cleaning to twice a month and encouraging residents to move their cars out of the way on street cleaning days.
West County communities may consider bans on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene food containers that often end up in sewers, Bradshaw said.
The city is also initiating its own projects and using controls and incentives on new private development to limit the total amount of water that gets into the system. For example, El Cerrito has installed beds of native plants, known as rain gardens, on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue that provide a visually appealing means of retaining rainwater that would otherwise flow into the storm drains.
The soil in the beds "act as mini treatment facilities" by filtering out pollutants before the excess water empties into smaller drains installed below the beds, Bradshaw said.
The San Pablo Avenue initiative could qualify as one of 10 pilot projects required Bay Area-wide under the regional stormwater release permit.
El Cerrito has another similar project in the design stage, Bradshaw said.