San Diego: Surf, Sun and Sewage

by on February 3, 2009 · 5 comments

in Economy, Environment, San Diego

Point Loma sewage outfall pipe erupts, spilling millions of gallons of raw sewage into the ocean, Dec., 1992. (photo: Rick Doyle)

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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Stu February 4, 2009 at 12:22 pm

The facts presented are a little off. Raw sewage is not discharged to the ocean. If a pipe breaks it will flow to the sea as all water will. But the outfall pipe discharges highly treated wastewater at a removal rate of 80 to 89%, 80% is required. Primary treatment only gets it to 50%.
I will agree with Michelle that now is a great time to get some of those federal dollars to help upgrade infastructure that we have been ignoring for to long, from roads to pipelines to airports and transportation. I am just not sure it Pt Loma WTP is the proper place to spend several 100 million dollars when the pipes that carry it need fixing as do the water lines, etc. No doubt the money needs to be spent Just where?


Frank Gormlie February 4, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Stu – thanks so much for the clarifications. And welcome back, we’ve missed you. How was the skiing?


Patrick February 12, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Expect nothing to happen from politicians unless you have one or all of them in full nelsons. As I recall there was a mayor, a short mayor & a short sighted mayor, decades ago who had an opportunity to upgrade the sewage treatment plants in San Diego. I think he was promoted to governor for a while. Yea, I’ll see an upgrade just about the same time I attend a prayer conference w/ the Obaminator. Great, let’s spend another billion dollars on ignorance only sex education & faith based gummint.
When it comes to some decisions, the crew in D.C. can be depended upon to do the wrong thing. Send more troops to Afghanistan or begin repairing infrastructure in the U.S.? “I think we need to save the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban. And maybe we’ll see Bin Laden in the outback,” sayeth the Obaminator & friends. Actually, there might be hope. I’m holding my breath as I type.


tony May 14, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Stu, I agree with the premise, but your number is a little off. the cost to upgrade will be somewhere between 700 million and 1.5 billion.


Stu May 16, 2009 at 10:19 pm

It depends on the site and how it is used and what costs are you talking about I might buy a billion with all the soft costs and legal road blocks thrown in but construction several 100 million ought to do it. But who’s arguing over a few billion here or there. The real cost come in selling a project of that magnitude to the general public and the rate increases that will go with where it is Federal dollars or local taxes,federal State & local along with fees will be the source of the funds.


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