by Michelle Mehta / Switchboard / Feb. 3, 2009
Think of San Diego, and your mind probably conjures images of lounging on long sandy beaches and swimming, surfing, or boating in the warm ocean water. You probably don’t think of the 180 million gallons of minimally-treated sewage that are being pumped into the Pacific Ocean, 4 1/2 miles off the coast of Point Loma, every day. That’s more than 65 billion gallons a year. You might also think, isn’t that illegal?
More than 30 years ago, Congress mandated that publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants, like the one in Point Loma, treat its wastewater to a higher standard-“secondary” standards-before discharging their treated wastewater. Some cities argued that secondary standards were not necessary for plants that discharged their wastewater into the ocean, and some of these plants received waivers from this basic federal water quality requirement. Basically, the belief a quarter-century ago was that the ocean was a giant sink that would simply dilute all our pollution. If you want to know what primary-treated sewage being discharged underwater looks like (and you’re not eating right now), watch this.
Today, we know better, though, and over the years every sewage plant in California has upgraded to at least secondary treatment or is in the process of upgrading-except one. The City of San Diego has applied for its third waiver from meeting federal standards. The EPA put their rubber stamp on the application and tentatively approved the waiver. On its web site, San Diego presents its future treatment options as a dichotomy between (1) upgrading to secondary treatment at a cost to the ratepayers or (2) continuing to apply for a waiver every five years and saving everyone money. But this ignores all the benefits-environmental and economic-of an upgrade.
Disinfected secondary-treated wastewater can be reused-and sold-for anything from landscape irrigation to firefighting to mixing concrete. Water recycling lessens the need to import increasingly-scarce water from northern California, and provides a cheaper, drought-proof supply of water. Other wastewater treatment plants in California, like in Orange County, are upgrading not only to secondary treatment, but to a more advanced standard. The treated water is clean enough to drink; Orange County replenishes its groundwater basin with it. Given California’s water crisis, failing to upgrade is incredibly shortsighted.
San Diego’s “we can’t do it” attitude rings hollow when considering that every other publicly-owned treatment plant in California has managed to undergo an upgrade or is now doing so. And as for the cost-has there ever been a better time to upgrade then when the federal government is poised to spend a portion of almost a trillion dollars on green infrastructure projects such as this?
Michelle Mehta is an attorney for the Water Program, Santa Monica, California. Switchboard is a website of the National Resource Defense Council.