News Feature | July 5, 2016

Silicon Valley Looks To Modernize Stormwater Management

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A city in the heart of Silicon Valley is trying to modernize its approach to stormwater.

“For decades, Palo Alto's storm drains have functioned like hidden highways, ferrying water away from local streets and into the Bay. Built for the most part half a century ago, it shows its age,” Palo Alto Online reported.

The system dates back to the 1940s, but it is in the midst of a major overhaul.  

“Now, as Palo Alto moves ahead with a major effort to upgrade the system, city officials aren't just looking to install new pumps and dig new drains. They are also looking to transform the city's traditional way of looking at stormwater,” the report said.

Instead of viewing stormwater as a nuisance, city planners want to make it a resource by harvesting rainwater in an effort aimed at water-quality improvement and groundwater replenishment. In one neighborhood, the city installed bioretention planters to collect runoff in a $2 million project. Rain gardens, tree wells and green roofs are also on the city’s "green stormwater infrastructure" agenda.

In effect, the city has undergone a shift from an “old ‘hardscape’ system in which stormwater is piped away and discharged to the Bay to a new one in which the water is returned to the natural environment,” the report said.

Mayor Pat Burt weighed in: "It's not just our stormwater. It's about how it helps us complement our creek flood-control program and how it basically adds to a sustainable approach.”

Policymakers are also seeking a new funding structure. A committee recommended that the city change the name of "storm drain fees" to "storm management fees" in order to "take into consideration that it might be a resource as well," according to Claire Elliott, committee co-chair, per the report. The city is also investing in infrastructure projects, such as storm drain upgrades.

Joe Teresi, senior engineer at public work, described the effort.

"It's the whole new way of looking at stormwater as more of an asset rather than something to get rid of," he said, per the report. "The basic concept in green storm-water infrastructure management is to infiltrate water and treat it as once was done when the environment was in natural state."

Potential rate hikes are subject to public approval.

“Residents will have a chance at a protest hearing in October to voice opposition to…[a] proposed rate increase as required by law. Property owners currently pay about $12.63 per month in storm drain bills. The proposal would increase bills to about $13.65 per month for the next 15 years,” the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Palo Alto is working, generally, to enact forward-thinking water policies.

For instance, in an effort to encourage water reuse, Palo Alto’s building code “requires new construction or large renovation projects to make homes laundry-to-landscape ready,” KQED reported.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Stormwater Management Solutions Center.