San Diego Airport achieves collaboration breakthrough and major cost savings in stormwater management

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority San Diego, CA

Project highlights

Client challenge:
The San Diego International Airport, the busiest single-runway commercial airport in the US, was in the midst of a major expansion and improvement program. Development plans almost came to a halt, however, when the airport’s planners, facilities development and environmental affairs staffs realized that mounting stormwater permitting and compliance requirements had these groups working at cross-purposes.

Our approach:
Haley & Aldrich operational excellence and sustainability & resilience consultants brought all stakeholders together to help them understand that the stormwater challenges were interconnected, and to create a shared vision and collaboration for managing the issues. The company helped the group uncover solutions that were sustainable and resilient, while also addressing climate trends such as rising sea level, water shortages, and the impacts of extreme weather events.

Value delivered:

  • Breaking through departmental silos and establishing a common purpose reduced the airport’s “cost of complexity,” saving as much as $300,000 annually in operating costs.
  • The stage is set for further savings of millions of dollars a year on compliance and permitting costs.

Work is proceeding on plans to harvest rainwater, reducing both stormwater management and water supply costs, and flooding risk – contributing to the sustainability and resilience of the airport and the wider community.

Preventing stormwater from washing away millions of dollars

Water, water everywhere

The San Diego Regional Airport Authority implements an exemplary stormwater management program, at a cost of approximately $2.6 million annually. Yet despite their huge compliance costs, the airport is still challenged to meet environmental requirements for stormwater discharge, due to limitations in currently available stormwater flow-through treatment technology. Compliance costs are forecast to double over the next few years, as regulations become even more stringent.

Each year, approximately 180 million gallons of rain fall on the airport, which currently has 14 outfalls or discharge points that convey stormwater into the San Diego Bay. However, there is a need for even more to comply with local and FAA flood prevention criteria – and as the airport expands to meet increasing passenger and cargo volumes.

The permitting of these new outfalls is proving to be difficult with environmental regulators, delaying development plans. Each one of the airport’s outfalls is a potential risk from several standpoints: regulatory compliance – meeting water quality and sediment quality objectives; litigation – there have been several past lawsuits between parties potentially responsible for sediment impacts in the bay; and public perception of the airport as a “polluter.” Already the authority is spending approximately $400,000 annually to address these risks.

But regulatory compliance isn’t the only stormwater problem. The airport is vulnerable to extreme weather events: heavy rainfall and storm surges have the potential to cause water to back up storm drains, flooding the airport and access roads. Shutting down the runway due to flooding costs the airport more than $1,000 per minute. And climate science suggests that the extreme El Niño weather events – which have in the past caused extensive flooding every 20 years or so – are predicted to double in frequency.

The flipside of the climate change story is that while large storms are predicted to be more frequent and intense, fresh water supplies are becoming increasingly scarce. This will drive up the cost of water, possibly by a factor of five within the next 20 years. So at the San Diego Airport, the water situation was anything but clear.

Despite its many facets, the problem is one

A team from Haley & Aldrich staffed with experts in operational excellence and sustainable practices worked with the airport’s internal stakeholders to help them comprehend this multitude of environmental, engineering and resilience challenges as an interconnected whole. Through this process, the stakeholders realized that the stormwater challenges could not be solved by one department working alone; rather, collaboration across internal organizational boundaries, and with others outside the airport organization was required.

Haley & Aldrich helped the group to surface the underlying problems and uncover solutions that would be robust, sustainable, provide lifecycle cost savings, and offer co-benefits. The result was a shared vision for addressing water quality, flooding, and resilience to climate impacts in a holistic and strategic way – and that gave the airport a whole new view of opportunities that were hidden within its stormwater problems.

Pennies from heaven

Haley & Aldrich’s facilitation and technical capabilities helped support the airport staff’s recognition that the rainfall on their site was not just a costly nuisance to “discard” into the bay, but also a valuable resource with monetary value. A study performed by Haley & Aldrich identified that 40 percent of the water consumed by operations is for non-potable uses such as rental car washing, aircraft washing, cooling towers and irrigation. This has now become a driver in an initiative to capture and store the rainwater for reuse, cutting the airport’s water bill.

The co-benefits from capturing stormwater are that it reduces pollutant discharges to the bay, reduces flood risk through diminished flows into the inundated conveyance system, and is a hedge against future water scarcity and the escalating cost of water.

Currently the Airport Facilities, Environmental, and Planning Department along with their outside consultants and academia (such as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography), are co-creating a Strategic Master Drainage Plan. This Plan is linked to the airport’s long-term development plan and looks out to the year 2035. The plan will provide a strategy for addressing stormwater quantity, quality, reuse and possible climate impacts in a holistic way, and will include a recommended implementation plan for sustainable stormwater infrastructure improvements and resilience strategies.

Through this innovative approach, the authority is striving to move beyond mere compliance with stormwater permit requirements. By minimizing discharges, the authority hopes to significantly reduce the regulatory burden of compliance – saving millions of dollars related to compliance, buying water from the city, and recovering from flooding – while at the same time contributing to the sustainability and resilience of the airport and the community in which they operate and serve.

For more information on this project, contact:

Ben Chandler
Beth Breitenbach