Cities and water districts in East County, North County and the South Bay have lined up to oppose the city of San Diego’s ambitious plans to turn sewage into drinkable water.

For years, San Diego has aimed to make recycled water drinkable and widespread.

The idea used to face opposition from the public, who thought it was yucky. Two years ago, the drought and changes in public opinion seemed to remove any obstacles, so the city decided it could double the size of the three-part project’s first phrase.

Now the project is branded Pure Water, and the city hopes to produce 30 million gallons per day of recycled water by 2022. But the drought made sewage harder to come by and more valuable. As a result, costs for the project have risen.

The $1 billion project is a top priority for Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Gov. Jerry Brown also put Pure Water on a list of projects that he hopes the Trump administration will help pay for.

But the mayors of Coronado and Chula Vista, city council members in Poway and Lemon Grove, and officials from water agencies in San Diego’s eastern and southern suburbs are all trying to rein in the project.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

They have written letters to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to argue for the original, smaller version of the project, which would have produced just 15 million gallons per day of water in coming years.

Those cities – and every city from Imperial Beach to Alpine – send their sewage to the city for treatment. So, when San Diego upgrades its sewage infrastructure, customers in other cities pay more. The other cities say San Diego hasn’t told them exactly what the project will cost their ratepayers. That’s, in part, because San Diego doesn’t know.

The conflict has been brewing since the fall, when the Metro Joint Powers Authority – the group of cities that use San Diego’s sewer system – began to question San Diego’s water department about the larger version of the project. Since then, San Diego has faced sharper criticism.

Jim Peasley, the chairman of the group, said he’s not sure San Diego’s big plan is in the best interest of ratepayers.

“They just don’t want to do what is most cost-effective for the ratepayers, that’s the bottom line,” he said.

San Diego has a legal commitment to environmentalists and state and federal regulators to recycle 83 million gallons per day of water by 2035, which would be a third of the city’s water supply. The original plan for Pure Water was to recycle 15 million gallons per day by 2023, another 15 million gallons by 2027 and the final 53 million gallons by the end of 2035. The total costs over time would be about $3 billion.

San Diego justifies its determination to expand the first phase in an odd way. Because of the drought, people are using less water, which means there’s less wastewater in the sewer system. So there’s not enough sewage in one place to recycle into 15 million gallons of drinkable water, according to San Diego officials.

So, San Diego says it needs to build more infrastructure than expected to gather up enough sewage from across its sprawling sewer system to send to a single location for treatment. It wants to build a new pump station in Mission Valley and an 11-mile pipeline to send the sewage to a soon-to-be constructed water recycling plant along Interstate 805 in the northern part of the city.

Not only is that more expensive than expected, but San Diego now believes it makes more sense to do 30 million gallons at once, to take advantage of economies of scale, rather than do two separate 15 million gallon projects five years apart. That’s more expensive in the short term, though supposed to save money in the long run.

“Because we had to do that anyways, then that became the option that made the most sense,” said Halla Razak, the head of San Diego’s public utilities department.

Not everyone believes this.

“That’s a point of contention, whether that’s true or not,” Peasley said. “The city claims it is.”

Lemon Grove has hired its own engineering firm to check San Diego’s math, though that analysis is still in its early stages.

Peasley and others seem to believe that San Diego’s engineers put a thumb on the scale to justify the larger version of the project. Why that would be is still unclear.

Pure Water is ultimately an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. The city operates an outdated sewage treatment plant at Point Loma, which dumps somewhat treated sewer water into the ocean. For years, the city has promised to build Pure Water in order to avoid spending $2 billion to upgrade the Point Loma plant.

If it were only about treating sewage or only about getting a new water supply, Pure Water probably wouldn’t make financial sense.

“It’s an expensive source of water, it’s an expensive way to treat water, but the fact that it’s doing both makes it affordable,” said Charles Modica, a staffer for San Diego’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst.

Right now, a waiver from state and federal environmental regulators allows San Diego to avoid upgrading Point Loma. The latest version of that waiver is pending with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. That new document would mandate that the city produce 30 million gallons per day of recycled water by 2022, instead of the original 15 million gallons by 2023. The neighboring cities are hoping to get the regional board to keep the goal at 15 million gallons.

Part of the problem is that such waivers are only temporary. The only way to be certain that San Diego can avoid upgrading Point Loma is getting Congress to change the Clean Water Act. The act generally prohibits sewage treatment plants from dumping all but the most highly treated water into the ocean; right now, San Diego’s water is not as highly treated as the act requires.

Until the Clean Water Act is amended to spare San Diego, neighboring cities want to avoid as much cost as possible, because even if San Diego spends the $3 billion it will take to finish the Pure Water project, it could still be forced to spend $2 billion to upgrade Point Loma if the state or federal government decided to stop granting waivers. That is a nightmare scenario for politicians and bureaucrats who have said one expensive project will negate the need for the other.

Even if the city’s engineering is correct about making Pure Water bigger now, there’s concern that $1 billion is a lot of cost at once.

“Ultimately, even though there’s some engineering efficiency, you’re still incurring a lot of costs up front sooner to all the ratepayer,” said Al Lau, the engineering director at Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which serves Alpine, El Cajon, Lakeside and Santee.

Padre Dam is working on its own recycled water project, which would provide about 30 percent of the drinking water used in East County. But it’s worried about paying for that project because of the uncertainty about the costs from Pure Water and Point Loma.

Some have suggested that Padre Dam’s project should be used to help meet San Diego’s 83 million gallon recycled water target so that Pure Water can be smaller. Razak said San Diego could eventually save money that way but she doesn’t want to count on Padre Dam’s project happening in the short term.

In the meantime, San Diego has expressed concern about Padre Dam’s project taking even more sewage out of the regional sewer system. In a recent letter to Padre Dam, water officials from San Diego’s public utilities department fretted that the East County project would “deprive the city of flows which it otherwise could have used for its own recycled water projects.”

    This article relates to: Environmental Regulation, Science/Environment, Water

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and power. You can reach him at or 619.550.5665.

    Sam Litvin
    Sam Litvin

    Also, what is 30 million gallons/day in context of San Diego use? What percentage of San Diego total water use would this be?

    Also, how much is 3 billion in context of our current expenditure on water?

    How much would this save in the long run to the tax payer?

    How will this affect us positively if global warming creates more shortages? How much will water cost in the future?  

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Sam Litvin At this point in time, it's not fear of proven technology but concerns about the substantial costs that would be added by speeding up and expanding the reclamation project, and the additional cost to upgrade the Pt. Loma plant if required goals cannot be reached due to lower flows of wastewater (not all of which is from toilets).

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    Sure, go ahead and recycle the sewer water.  The water for San Diego is practically undrinkable anyway.  I have to run it through a D.I. water purifier at home anyway.  

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Great Draft EIR Letter by the Public Utility Department (PUD) on the City of San Diego's historic Water Rights of the Pueblo Watershed, San Diego Watershed, Penasquitos Watershed, etc. 

    The City of San Diego owns this wonderful rainfall, including Surface Waters, and Ground Waters upsteam of San Diego Bay. 

    Jerry Jones
    Jerry Jones

    “ We've had waivers of secondary treatment at Point Loma for going on 20 years now, no reason to believe they won't continue.” Really Marco? How many law suits have you filed to stop those waivers and force secondary upgrades? Whining bunch of politicians? Really? This from a two faced ambulance chaser in violation of the Cooperative Agreement you signed. No one is whining about anything. I for one will not accept the extortion you are thrusting on wastewater ratepayers in pursuit of your narrow visioned agenda and future paychecks. There are engineering considerations that could include secondary upgrades to Point Loma that San Diego has not considered and will not talk to us about. But since you don't live in this service area and won't pay this bill I guess that doesn't concern you.

    Stop pretending that we will continue to get waivers for Point Loma. You didn't keep to you word on the Cooperative Agreement and no one believes that you won't be back in 5 years to file another law suit against the next waiver or extort more money out of wastewater ratepayers. Stop deflecting from the fact that Pure Water was intended as a means to eliminating those waivers in the form of permanent secondary equivalency. It was not meant to perpetuate waivers. Your violation of the cooperative agreement in favor of advanced staging and spending eliminates the consumers a built in off-ramp in 2019 in your own agreement. If the “act of congress” needed for secondary equivalency doesn't become a reality, ratepayers lose that off-ramp essential to avoiding 2 billion dollars in unnecessary spending. The lose of that ability to right size the system and allocate equitable cost sharing is irresponsible and criminal. There are environmentally responsible alternatives that have not been explored. What responsible environmentalist wouldn't want to explore an alternative that included purification and secondary upgrades? There are savings to wastewater ratepayers to be had if secondary upgrades become mandatory but not without the 2109 off-ramp before San Diego builds their water project at wastewater ratepayers expense.

    Keith Hartz
    Keith Hartz subscriber

    Just FYI about "...It wants to build a new pump station in Mission Valley ....."

    The plan is to buy the property that the Humane Society uses currently.

    Not sure who came up with this brilliant idea to put a pump station less than 100 feet from people's homes ....

    Keith Hartz
    Keith Hartz subscriber

    Smells for one thing. Loss of property value for another

    g kelly
    g kelly

    Their is too much uncertainty to warrant in investment of this amount. It seems that the first goal should be to determine how clean our sewage discharges must be, and then determine what must be done to meet those requirements. After that, we'll be in a position to decide whether "toilet to tap" makes economic, ecological and environmental sense. Along the way, we should be mindful that the cost of desalinization is likely to fall in the coming decades, and there are many water users in San Diego who do not require drinking water to meet their needs, primarily farmers, golf courses and parks, who could use recycled water very conveniently, without any threats to public health.

    My point is that we do not know enough to make an investment of this magnitude at the present time.

    Sam Litvin
    Sam Litvin

    @g kelly Israel recycles over 86% of its water and space station 100%, it's a pretty proven technology.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @g kelly  Your knowledge on this topic is more than 20 years out of date. The technology is tested and proven, and is upgraded as newer technology is developed. Federal and State regulations require repurified wastewater to potable standards to meet specific criteria. "Toilet to tap" (although only a small part of wastewater is actually from toilets - most is from sinks, tubs, washing machines, etc.) is already here and is meeting the requirements established by the regulations.

    Furthermore, there are other cities in the U.S. and abroad which  already are providing potable repurified wastewater to consumers. 

    The big issue now is $$$ to expand the existing wastewater reclamation facilities and ensuring that San Diego meets existing legal obligations for redirecting a specified amount of wastewater away from the Pt. Loma Plant for reclamation. Failure to do so could lead to losing the Waiver and having to invest billions in expanding the Pt. Loma Plant where there is no room to expand. There are a lot of moving parts that have to work together but, in the long run, both water and money are saved by spending the money to achieve the goals.

    marco gonzalez
    marco gonzalez subscribermember

    We've had waivers of secondary treatment at Point Loma for going on 20 years now, and there's no reason to believe they won't continue. There has never been a regulatory unease with waivers; rather, the last two large ones (Honolulu and Orange County) were phased out because the agencies couldn't show an ability to continue meeting the relevant waiver standards. Here in San Diego, we've always been in the same boat. If we can't meet the waiver standards, upgrades to the Point Loma plant will be required. That won't change with "secondary equivalency" standards that are being sought by these other cities. Put another way, the perceived assurances being sought by these cities to not have to spend money on upgrading Point Loma so long as the Pure Water project is moving forward would not actually exist if the discharges were harming the environment. In the end, I chalk up this whining to a bunch of politicians who were willing to support a good project in theory and then got cold feet when they had to put their money where their mouths were. Enough delay. Time to start investing wisely and aggressively in future water independence. 

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    In spite of the rain this winter, we live in a desert.  We are also at the end of the pipe for water from Northern California and lastly, the Metropolitan Water District (MWA) is not our friend.  San Diego needs to become water independent.  We need to do this for our own survival.  I know things like recycling and desal are expensive, but they are also necessary.  Think of them as an investment in our future.  In buying now we are getting this capacity at its cheapest price, water costs will only go up in the future.

    We should have two more desal plants, one in mid county and another in South Bay.  One possible way to reduce the cost of recycling water is to treat it only as much as needed for agriculture.  Much of our county's water needs are from our agribusinesses, they don't need drinking water purity.  I suspect that much of the cost of recycling is in that last bit to get from 'acceptable' to 'drinking water.'

    Unless climate change move us into the tropics we are looking at water scarcity as far as the eye can see.  We should be investing in our future now.