Environmentalists Split Over Compromise With Mayor Sanders On Sewage Waiver

by on January 29, 2009 · 6 comments

in Economy, Environment, San Diego

SAN DIEGO, CA.  San Diego environmental activists are split over the compromise between a few major environmental groups and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders on the City obtaining a waiver for the secondary treatment of its wastewater.

On January 19th it was announced that Mayor Sanders and the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper had all come to an agreement on the waiver. In December of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency had granted the City a five-year waiver on having to upgrade the sewage treatment.  The environmental groups had threatened to challenge the waiver, and even sue the City.  On the City’s side of the deal, it would sponsor a study to examine ways to galvanize its water reuse program.

And not everyone is happy with that.  A state-wide group with local representatives, called ‘stop the waiver’, sees San Diego as the last hold-out of California cities that have obtained waivers over the years.  Efforts to get waivers have been abandoned in Orange County, Goleta and Morro Bay.  And they were abandoned due to campaigns by local citizens. “San Diego is the last waiver,” the group’s website proclaims.

At the center of the dispute is what San Diego does with its wastewater.  Over 170 million gallons of wastewater are dumped off the coast of San Diego via the Point Loma Wastewater Treatement Plant.  The water is only treated to “advanced primary” levels, despite that the U.S. Clean Water Act mandates all metropolitan sewage be treated to secondary levels. San Diego for decades has been granted extensions and waivers from having to complete the upgrade, estimated to cost between $1.5 and $2.3 billions.  The City got these by pleading that it simply didn’t have the funds. The Reader’s Matt Potter covered the same issue 12 years ago.

A recent City Beat article described how the compromise was viewed by different players:

“Why dump water into the ocean?” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Coastkeeper. “Why should the city spend billions of dollars getting to secondary treatment when water recycling would be the far better solution?”

If approved by the City Council, the study would explore different ways the city could implement water recycling, taking into account the financial, logistical and environmental consequences of each option. The city would have two years to complete it.

Sanders has long expressed concerns about potable-water reuse, and he said his support for the study doesn’t represent a change of heart. But San Diego is already in a Stage 1 water emergency, and in his State of the City speech, Sanders warned of the mandatory water cutbacks that come with a Stage 2 emergency declaration. He looks forward to finding out how the city could make better use of its dwindling water supply.

“There are different ways of looking it at it, like decentralizing supply,” he told CityBeat. “You need water down at [ship builder] NASCCO, and they need a good supply. Maybe it could be a decentralized supply that we clean up enough for industrial use.”

City Council President Ben Hueso … spokesperson, Michelle Ganon, said he’d docket the proposed agreement as soon as Hueso’s office received the paperwork, and that he would be fully behind anything that allowed San Diego to make better use of its water resources.

City Councilmember Donna Frye has often brought the issue of water reuse to the City Council’s Natural Resources & Culture Committee, which she chairs. She will likely be a prime backer of the deal, despite the historical unpopularity of potable-water reuse among the public.

“It’s a whole different way of thinking,” Frye said. “When you want to change the way people look at a problem, you do need to do the analysis and the costs that are associated with that. I’m optimistic because it’s sensible.”

Reznick said he knows the study is only the first part of the process. In 2005, Coastkeeper and Surfrider sued the city to get a study done on indirect potable water reuse, or so-called “toilet-to-tap.” That study later resulted in the potable-reuse pilot program that is going on right now.

Last June, Reznick was also quoted by City Beat in complaining about the lack of sewer infrastructure upgrade:

One example of this is the city’s history of chronic sewer spills. “For over a five-year period, from 1995 to 2000, we were averaging a sewage spill a day,” says Reznik. “We sued the City and reached a settlement. It turned out that the City just wasn’t investing in the sewer infrastructure. We have a 3000-mile sewer system, and 1000 miles was beyond its life expectancy.”

Since the suit in 2000, the City has invested $250 million of the agreed-upon $1 billion to upgrade the sewer infrastructure. As a result, says Reznik, “Sewer spills have gone down over 80 percent.”

“These big eco organizations are gambling their credibility for another study,” one disgrunted OB environmentalist who also surfs, told the OB Rag blog. “I think it stinks.”

The anti-waiver people aren’t pleased with the deal either. Their website states their position:

While San Diego’s Mayor Sanders calls for water conservation, higher rates and expensive, risky desalination schemes, Point Loma dumps over 170,000,000 gallons of poorly treated wastewater into the Ocean every day.

This immense disposal of potentially valuable water would be a good place to start looking for new water supplies for San Diego. Reclaimed water, if properly treated, could, with conservation, reduce the need for new water supplies and actually lower water bills.

Poorly treated sewage dumped into the Ocean means swimmers are playing a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with their health. Elevated levels of live bacteria can’t be good for swimmers and fish, while virus and roundworm larvae are not even part of the testing regimen.

The only testing is for live indicator coliform bacteria.

Dead bacteria, viable virus, live nematode worms, viable brain worm larvae and other parasites are allowed to float to shore along with fecal flakes and more than 83 contaminants that elude current treatment, including caffeine, pharmaceuticals, birth control, estrogen mimicers and other drugs and chemicals.

There is no requirement that the sewage district post any warning about swimming in fecal sewage material other than live coliform bacteria.

The group calls for full treatment for sewage:

San Diego sewage apologists say “our level of treatment is good enough”, despite evidence of loss of plankton and other sea life, and diversion of attention to the admittedly contributory “urban runoff” and “on-shore sources”. When the people find out about the S.D. waiver, they will not like it nor those who hoodwinked them all these years (since 1995, when a certain Long Beach Congressman got them a waiver by a special act of congress).

Could sewage be good for San Diego, and bad for everyone else?

San Diego sewage backers stated that their “conditions” were much different than Orange County … much as OCSD had stated that Orange County was “special” and different from everyone else. Validating the ancient proverb,
“…when you are caught up in a contradictory position, try to make a distinction…”.

The plain fact is, public health is the same everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time before increasing population force improved sewage treatment methods. There is nothing “special” about San Diego, except it ignores the primary sewage it dumps offshore.

With the major environmental groups on board, it appears the City Council will approve the deal. Looks like Sanders will have his study and potable water too.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie January 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

I’m really looking for Jon C and Stu to make comments here.

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avatar OB Joe January 30, 2009 at 11:59 am

Geeezzzzz, enviro-dudes, can you explainoise yourselves?

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avatar Doug Korthof February 1, 2009 at 10:42 am

Why should anyone comment? You’ve shown your bias toward sewage.

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avatar Frank Gormlie February 1, 2009 at 10:55 am

Doug – I’ve shown my “bias toward sewage” ? you mean I like sewage more than the other guy? I don’t get your comment about not commenting. What bias have I shown?

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avatar Doug Korthof February 1, 2009 at 11:31 am

Here’s the problem with all San Diego sewage stuff: buying into the official line.

While nominally in favor of water recycling, SD pols have used “Toilet To Tap” to frighten the public for decades. They don’t want to give up their waiver, not now, not ever.

Local SD “enviro” groups, Coastkeeper, Sierra Club and Surfrider, have been dazzled by the city agreeing that the future is indeed water recycling. But they don’t have a concrete plan for getting to that lofty goal. Can anyone be opposed to this as a far-off goal??

The problem is not the lofty goal, the problem is the waiver.

I believe that “the enviros” are mistaken, because the stated reason that the city doesn’t want to give up the waiver is to save money. If they won’t spend money to get to secondary standards, what makes “the enviros” think the city will spend even more to completely recycle the water?

In any building project, it’s a good idea not to lay a foundation that is insufficient to support the eventual use of the building.

A charitable interpretation of what “the enviros” are saying is that building the secondary capability now would be money wasted, since there are other pathways to recycling. The same argument was used in Orange County when they tried to say that going to full secondary would be money wasted, investing in obsolete technology. But what’s the city’s plan?

If the City had a plan, they could use it to stop the waiver and get federal help; but they don’t, just empty rhetoric. I think one way to defrock “the enviros” is to demand that they show their hand: What’s their plan?? I suspect that it’s as puerile as blathering about “storing the water in reservoirs until its treated” (from testimony in support of the waiver).

I know the plan I’d like, right now: give up the waiver, bring Point Loma to full secondary standards with its current footprint, and invest in a new sewage plant (in addition to NC and SB) that would be situated so that it could pump into settling basins, as they had planned at Santee, and with enough space so that it could be expanded as PL, SB and NC were slowly downsized and abandoned.

So you’d plan the site to be capable of expansion to 25 million people, or up to 2.5 billion gallons per day; only a fraction of it might ever be needed.

The eventual plan would be to clense all the water, reuse all the biosolids via advanced sludge management, and feed all the recycled water into a soft-bottom habitat and eventual injection into the water table. Not “Toilet To Tap”, not hot-air, just a solid plan for defusing the false “crisis” of Point Loma being too small, which has befuddled “the enviros”, IMO.

Once a plan has been agreed on, the EPA would give San Diego a certain number of years, and concrete goals, and in the long run it would be much cheaper than the “desalination” scheme that is being prepared to separate San Diego from its money.

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avatar Frank Gormlie February 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Thanks Doug.

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