Keeping It Natural

A collaborative approach helps a Southern California city get buy-in from developers and the business community for strict stormwater rules
Keeping It Natural
City of Temecula Public Works employees David Davis, right, and Juan Jaime use a Vac-Tron truck to clean out a storm drain with catch basin filters in the parking lot of a commercial building. (Photography by Bill Wechter)

Interested in Cleaning?

Get Cleaning articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Cleaning + Get Alerts

Situated at the confluence of the Santa Margarita River with Murrieta and Temecula Creeks, the City of Temecula, Calif., acts like a catch basin. Any polluted runoff up-stream eventually enters the city, then the river.

The area gets no snowmelt, and rainfall averages 12 inches a year, mostly from January through March. So developers typically paid little attention to construction runoff and over-irrigation.

Although the city abided by its MS4 permit requirements, it had no formal NPDES program until it hired Aldo Licitra in 2003. As an associate engineer in the Public Works Department, his job was to expand everyone’s knowledge of the regulations, then enforce them.

At first, Licitra faced stiff resistance from developers and contractors. He also struggled with natural legacy pollutants that tainted the city’s reputation with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Licitra walks a tightrope between appeasing developers and protecting the environment. The Santa Margarita River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California and is mostly pristine. In 2003, the NPDES budget was $365,000. When the new MS4 permit came out in November 2010, the budget rose to $900,000. Overcoming the burden placed on the general fund and taxpayers is the city’s next challenge.


End of the line

Temecula, in southwest Riverside County, lies 60 miles north of San Diego, between the upper and lower regions of the 740-square-mile Santa Margarita Watershed. “Everything from the upper watershed runs through our city, and that led the regional board to identify us as the nearest jurisdiction when it identifies pollutants downstream,” says Licitra. “But it isn’t always ours.”

The city incorporated in 1989, but explaining its 30-square-mile boundary to the regional board remains a challenge. “They believe that Temecula Valley and the wineries belong to us instead of the county,” Licitra says. “Consequently, we’ve been held responsible for most of the nutrients coming off those properties.”

The area’s 18 wineries constitute the most important winemaking region in Southern California. Licitra visited some of them in 2003 to check for illegal discharges and found that most owners knew about water-quality issues and had some mitigation measures in place to capture runoff.

Nevertheless, the board claimed the city had a major agricultural problem because laboratory analysis of creek sediment showed phosphorus and nitrogen. “We have no agriculture,” says Licitra. “Those pollutants are from decades of agricultural runoff.”

Nutrient levels rose from 2000 to 2007, when the city boomed with the construction of master-planned communities, large commercial centers, light industrial parks, medical office buildings, and homes. To attract buyers, developers over-irrigated lush lawns and flower gardens. As urbanization continued, landscape runoff ended up in Murrieta and Temecula Creeks, which are dry nine to 10 months per year.

Licitra hit the pavement with his stormwater campaign. “People appreciate the quality of life here and the beauty around them,” he says. “They don’t want to spoil it. Most changed their habits when informed about the consequences of their actions.”



To carry out NPDES requirements more effectively, the county, the city, and 26 other municipalities agreed that the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District would be the principal permittee, and they would be co-permittees.

Because Riverside County was one of the last to go through the MS4 permit process, the district adapted stormwater education materials from other counties further along in the process. To ensure consistent in-house training, the district and co-permittees hired engineering firm AEI-CASC Consulting to teach NPDES compliance seminars.

“We wanted staff from all the cities to be on par with each other,” says Licitra. “The courses were far more in-depth than the information we gave to the development community, and each module dealt with a different aspect of our MS4 permit.”

Meanwhile, Licitra visited construction sites and talked to contractors and developers about what was coming. After 15 years as an environmental consultant in the private sector, he understood NPDES and knew how to broach the subject in a non-threatening manner. “My NPDES inspector at the time had worked with other cities and knew how to intercept pollutants,” says Licitra.

The two explained that controlling sediment runoff was just the start. After that, contractors had to control runoff from paints, concrete washouts, and non-visible pollutants. “We used the back door approach, explaining how the mandate was passed down to the city, and now we were obligated to enforce it,” says Licitra. “We didn’t want them viewing us as the originator of all their environmental compliance problems.”


Balancing act

The work was complicated and challenging because many developers didn’t know how to address the requirements. They wanted details on what to install and how to install it, but Licitra could offer only general guidance.

“If we told them how to install a pollution control device and they did it wrong, there was a chance that the liability could fall back on the city,” he says. “Furthermore, the regional board could view any violations and citations they issued to developers as the city not doing its job well. It was a balancing act between protecting the city and protecting developers.”

The development community reacted with frustration and stiff resistance. “The requirements had been around for 10 years, but this was the first time municipalities were mandated to enforce them to that extent,” says Licitra. “We tried everything possible to work with contractors without coming down like the new sheriff in town.”

The co-permittees opened many in-house training workshops to developers. Licitra got support from the Business and Industry Association (BIA) representing contractors and developers. BIA leaders explained to members how the permits would affect the industry and urged them to comply. The association also developed its own NPDES training program for inspectors, engineers, water-quality managers, planners, and building and safety staff.

Licitra spoke at BIA and Inland Erosion Control annual seminars and continues to do so. “It allows me to share information and keep us all on the same page,” he says. “Our task now is to ensure that we prevent any additional pollutants from commingling with legacy pollutants.”


Downstream dilemma

The fourth-term NPDES permit deems irrigation runoff an illegal discharge, and the regional board directed the city to decide how to regulate it. Licitra distributed education materials about the ruling and collaborated with the Rancho California Water District, the city’s water provider. Growing concerns over drought caused the district to raise rates to deter excess water consumption. It also implemented a tiered rate system where users paid more if they surpassed a base allotment.

The drought of 2009 created a new stormwater challenge. Fires in much of the county left deep deposits of ash on the ground. “It was as fine as talcum powder and we’d sink in while walking through it,” says Licitra. “Then the rainy season arrived. We knew the regional board would be on us if that volume of ash reached Murrieta Creek.”

The city, Riverside County, and private entities collaborated to control the ash, building four large detention basins to intercept the water as it flowed over business and industrial sites. Property owner associations cleaned the basins after each rain. Despite their efforts, residual waterborne ash flowed into the storm drains.

Because the fires were widespread and overwhelming, the regional board finally issued temporary permit exemptions. “Vegetation has grown in the burn areas, reducing the residual ash problem with every passing year,” says Licitra.


Pristine environment

Long-held respect for open spaces is helping Temecula meet its fourth-term permit. The city, population 105,000 and 90 to 95 percent built out, has 34 parks and numerous conservation set-asides. In addition, suburban communities with large lots limit density, as do large master-planned communities that include required open spaces. In 2011, the city annexed 500 hillside acres.

“We could build there, but the area is just too beautiful,” says Licitra. “Residents want natural places set aside for conservation.” That dovetails with the three main elements of the new low-impact development (LID) requirements:

• Stop construction and return the environment to pre-development conditions.

• Conserve what is on site if building must proceed.

• If unable to do that, trap, retain, and infiltrate a specific volume of stormwater, or first flush, to replenish the groundwater.

“The big LID guns are infiltration and retention-based BMPs such as basins, rain gardens, ponds, infiltration trenches, and biocells,” says Licitra. “If they aren’t feasible, we recommend treatment-based BMPs like sand filters. Manufactured products are the last choice because they are not considered natural BMPs.”


Making progress

Public Works is responsible for 70 miles of storm drains and 1,650 catch basins. “A dedicated crew inspects the basins just before the rainy season, then again later in the year,” says Licitra. “They clean those with filters twice a year to avoid flooding and change the filters annually.”

The crew uses a Vac-Tron PMD 500 GT vacuum truck with a 500-gallon debris tank, 225-gallon freshwater tank, and a jetter putting out 15 gpm/2,200 psi. They capture cleaning water at the outlet of the basin box to keep it from reaching the creeks.

“Maintenance isn’t as intense anymore,” says Licitra. “Going door- to-door in neighborhoods and talking with people about dumping trash into storm drain pipes really paid off. Gaining the residential and development communities’ cooperation has been through one-on-one contact. The accomplishments of the stormwater program are a result of the support I receive from our executive management team.”

Licitra worries that the new prescriptive permit will remove developers’ creative input and cast the city in the role of enforcer. “I’m proud of our program, but these new requirements will be a lot more difficult to implement and manage,” he says. “It’s the difference between taking baby steps and an Olympic broad jump.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.