Council unanimously approves purifying sewage into drinking water
By David Garrick, San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/19/14
San Diego took a bold step toward greater water independence Tuesday when the City Council unanimously approved long-term plans to recycle sewage into drinking water by using advanced scientific techniques.
A coalition of community leaders, business groups and environmental organizations hailed the plan as the best way to reduce reliance on imported water and create a sizable, drought-proof supply source.
“We can no longer afford to use water just once in this region,” Councilwoman Marti Emerald said. “If we don’t act today, it’s literally kicking the problem down the road.”
Councilman Scott Sherman said San Diego must fight back against sharply rising costs for imported water, which has more than doubled in price since 2009. The price tag for recycled, purified water is currently higher than that of imported water, but the trend is widely expected to be reversed in the longer term.
“Here in Southern California, we need to be self-sufficient when it comes to our water supply,” Sherman said. “This is a step in the right direction.”
The project, dubbed Pure Water San Diego, is expected to provide more than a third of the city’s potable water by 2035.
Concerns about a public backlash against drinking purified wastewater have prompted the city to spend $1 million on an education and outreach campaign. City officials noted that surveys have shown growing support in recent years for water-recycling programs, which some critics call “toilet to tap.”
Water and sewer rates would go up to cover part of the Pure Water project’s estimated $3.5 billion cost — including interest — for constructing three large recycling plants and laying many miles of pipe. San Diego plans to pay for the balance by seeking federal and state grants.
Rates are expected to begin dropping as the water recycling allows San Diego to buy less imported water, which currently makes up 85 percent of its total water supply.
In addition, recycling wastewater instead of partially processing it and then discharging the effluent into the ocean would allow the city to avoid spending about $2.1 billion in upgrades needed at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“I can assure you we have done a thorough analysis and concluded that it’s an investment we can’t afford not to make,” said Sean Karafin, a policy analyst for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “It will save ratepayer dollars down the road.”
Mike McSweeney of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County said a reliable water supply is crucial to constructing enough housing to support San Diego’s growing population.
“Without it, we can’t build,” he said. “Without it, we can’t live.”
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce said the plan gives San Diego businesses, including those in the biotech and craft-brewing sectors, confidence to expand their local operations.
“The Pure Water program will definitely give us and our businesses the certainty that they’ll have the water they need to grow our economy,” said Chanelle Hawken, the chamber’s executive director of public policy.
Environmental groups that have been lobbying the city for years to move ahead with water recycling said the Pure Water project will mean less sewage poisoning the ocean and less reliance on desalination, which isn’t as ecologically friendly.
“This is the most environmentally benign source of water that we have,” said Jim Pugh of the San Diego Audubon Society.
San Diego is the last large city in America that still dumps under-treated sewage into the sea, environmental leaders said at Tuesday’s council session.
Matt O’Malley of San Diego Coastkeeper said the importance of the council’s move couldn’t be overemphasized.
“We believe that this program will benefit not only our marine environment by beginning to reduce discharges into the ocean, but that it will also greatly benefit our region’s current and future water supply needs,” he said.
The council’s vote was hardly a surprise. The council members had endorsed the recycled-water concept several times in recent years and authorized the investment of millions of dollars on a pilot project three years ago.
Councilmen Todd Gloria and David Alvarez said it was refreshing to see votes on recycled water become less controversial as more people embrace the idea. They credited former council members Jim Madaffer, Scott Peters and Donna Frye for being pioneers who supported the approach years ago.
Tuesday’s vote was prompted by the looming expiration next summer of the discharge permit allowing the Point Loma plant to continue operating at its current treatment level. The permit temporarily exempts the facility from a retrofit that would create a more stringent treatment standard.
The council approved Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s proposal to request another exemption, and to tie that waiver to San Diego’s commitment to spelling out how it intends to meet federal wastewater standards through the water purification project.
Before Tuesday’s vote, Faulconer lobbied the council to press ahead.
“There’s nothing more important to the city of San Diego than ensuring we have a reliable water supply,” Faulconer said, touting recycled water as the solution. “It’s a common-sense approach that is environmentally friendly and economically sound.”
When Pure Water is built out in 20 years, it is expected to generate 83 million gallons a day of ultra-clean water.
The system starts with micro-filtration, where rows of plastic tubes and straws filter out microbes and other contaminants.
The water then goes through reverse-osmosis to screen out organic material, salts and other solids. The last step is a combination of ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to kill anything left.
One of the three plants would be at the North City Reclamation Plant near Miramar Road, where the pilot project was conducted. It would produce 15 million gallons of water per day by 2023.
The second facility, slated to begin producing another 15 million gallons by 2027, would be an expansion of the South Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant near the international border.
The third plant is tentatively slated to open by 2035 somewhere on Harbor Drive. It would produce an additional 53 million gallons per day.
The purified water could be mixed into the San Vicente Reservoir and piped to customers, or the city could route the water directly into the distribution system.