Just behind San Diego’s mayor sat a glass beaker filled nearly to its pointy brim with 400 milliliters of crystal clear water. Fresh from a tap, straight from a treatment process that made the water as clean as mankind knows how to get it: Stripped free of any pharmaceutical traces, of bacteria and viruses, of minerals and other potential impurities.

And the summer air was hot. Wipe-your-brow, so-long-June-gloom, roll-up-your-sleeves hot. Mayor Jerry Sanders had been standing in the inland sun at his University City press conference, baking for a good 20 minutes. The distilled water looked alluring: Crisp and refreshing.

The mayor had just spoken to reporters while standing in front of a maze of shiny silver pipes and whirring pumps now turning a million gallons of sewage into drinking water each day, part of an $11.8 million city pilot study. It’s a key step before regulators will allow San Diego to turn sewage into drinking water. Environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have pushed the city toward it, saying San Diego can no longer afford to waste water by dumping partially treated sewage in the ocean.


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The test plant, which will run for a year and won’t put any water in city drinking supplies, will yield scientific data the city needs to satisfy state health officials. If regulators sign off, San Diego could eventually emulate a large-scale sewage purification plant that opened in Orange County in 2008, capable of converting 70 million gallons of sewage a day into pure drinking water.

The mayor has been one of the concept’s chief opponents. That crystal clear beaker held water that Sanders once derided as “toilet-to-tap.” But the mayor’s face was getting red in the heat, and he’d just told six television cameras that “San Diego has elected to move beyond its fear and let science do its talking.”

This, from a mayor who in 2007 vetoed the pilot study and has repeatedly raised fears about pharmaceuticals lurking in purified sewage, even though it goes through a treatment process proven to remove traces of drugs. Our current drinking water supplies don’t.

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Though the mayor doesn’t outright support purifying sewage, he has gradually opened up to the idea, which has bipartisan support from business groups and developers, environmentalists and labor. Sanders said Thursday that San Diego needs to shore up local supplies and reduce its dependence on importing ever-more-expensive water from sources hundreds of miles away. He didn’t utter the phrase “toilet-to-tap.”

He ended his press conference and walked toward me, shook my hand. I asked if he’d changed his opinion about whether San Diego should purify sewage to boost local supplies.

No, he said. Like regulators, he said, he first wants to know that purified sewage is safe to add to drinking supplies before throwing support behind any big project.

“It’s the most difficult decision I’ll make as mayor,” Sanders said. “Once I’m certain that it’s healthy, it makes it a different issue. This is the only decision I’ll make that affects literally every single person in the city.”

But his words were a sign that Sanders has moved beyond the yuck factor that doomed a similar 1990s effort in San Diego. He’d previously said the public wasn’t willing to support purified sewage. Polls show that’s changing.

Sanders has long said that he wouldn’t quibble with the science behind the concept — science that says the water in that nearly full beaker was perfectly safe to drink. Science that says adding an ice cube of tap water to the beaker would’ve made the water dirtier. So I tested him.

“Will you take a drink from the beaker?”

Nooooo,” the mayor said. With a nervous laugh.

“Why not?”

“Actually, they won’t let you,” he said. “The regulators won’t allow anybody to drink this. If it had been tested and they said it was safe, you know, I wouldn’t hesitate. If it’s safe, it’s safe, and we can’t argue about that.”

City Councilman David Alvarez, who’s supported purifying sewage, didn’t have the same hesitation as the mayor. He later picked up the beaker and confided that he desperately wanted to try it — but couldn’t. The regulators, he explained.

Still, he sniffed it. Said it looked clean. And, with prodding from voiceofsandiego.org photographer Sam Hodgson, inched it ever closer to his lips.

A contractor who’d helped build the project was standing nearby. “No! No! No!” he exclaimed. Alvarez smiled and put the beaker down. City officials don’t want to irritate health regulators.

Alvarez, like 1.3 million other San Diegans, will have to wait.

Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis.

 

    This article relates to: News, Science/Environment

    Written by Rob Davis

    Rob Davis is a former senior reporter for Voice of San Diego. He is currently a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at robdaviswrites@gmail.com or 619.259.0529.

    24 comments
    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    This issue has no reason to be controversial. Seriously. There is virtually no credible disagreement on the science...and as has been pointed out by multiple people, the water would generally be better than the stuff we pull from the river now. This is an issue the building and environmental communities should be able to easily rally around. It is also a paradigmatic example of a topic for which we need leaders to lead. The average citizen hasn't the time or inclination to understand that this is cleaner water than they currently drink. So well placed TV ads and catchy slogans will sway people. This is a policy decision that it is incumbent upon our next Mayor and City Council to understand and communicate to San Diegans.

    omarpassons
    omarpassons

    This issue has no reason to be controversial. Seriously. There is virtually no credible disagreement on the science...and as has been pointed out by multiple people, the water would generally be better than the stuff we pull from the river now. This is an issue the building and environmental communities should be able to easily rally around. It is also a paradigmatic example of a topic for which we need leaders to lead. The average citizen hasn't the time or inclination to understand that this is cleaner water than they currently drink. So well placed TV ads and catchy slogans will sway people. This is a policy decision that it is incumbent upon our next Mayor and City Council to understand and communicate to San Diegans.

    Will Dawson
    Will Dawson subscriber

    Plain and simple: Hook Jerry's house up to the "TOILET TO TAP SYSTEM" and I am all for it. If its OK then he should have no problem.

    Sandawg
    Sandawg

    Plain and simple: Hook Jerry's house up to the "TOILET TO TAP SYSTEM" and I am all for it. If its OK then he should have no problem.

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross subscribermember

    I'm also concerned with what took place down in Chula Vista where several workmen connected up an untreated (purple) water pipeline to a fresh water intake line. That resulted in a number of people becoming ill and several small businesses going out of business. Once again lack of proper oversite which is so prevalent in this city.

    Activist
    Activist

    I'm also concerned with what took place down in Chula Vista where several workmen connected up an untreated (purple) water pipeline to a fresh water intake line. That resulted in a number of people becoming ill and several small businesses going out of business. Once again lack of proper oversite which is so prevalent in this city.

    Gayle Falkenthal APR
    Gayle Falkenthal APR subscriber

    It's going to take a combination of recycling, water saving technology, and individual small scale water collecting such as graywater use for us to maximize the supplies available.

    gfalke1
    gfalke1

    It's going to take a combination of recycling, water saving technology, and individual small scale water collecting such as graywater use for us to maximize the supplies available.

    marco gonzalez
    marco gonzalez subscribermember

    Hey Appledude, two things: first, you know, the technology employed for sewage recycling is virtually identical to desal....there's no reason to believe one would work and the other wouldn't. Second, where do you think our raw water currently comes from? The Colorado River's got quite a bit of treated sewage already. Where do you think all the Las Vegas effluent gets dumped?

    CLGMAG
    CLGMAG

    Hey Appledude, two things: first, you know, the technology employed for sewage recycling is virtually identical to desal....there's no reason to believe one would work and the other wouldn't. Second, where do you think our raw water currently comes from? The Colorado River's got quite a bit of treated sewage already. Where do you think all the Las Vegas effluent gets dumped?

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    All water is toilet to tap anyway.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    All water is toilet to tap anyway.

    Eva Vargas
    Eva Vargas subscriber

    Regarding info. from D'Thomas. Now you did it, I won't be able to use that water again. LOL Not.

    evavrgs
    evavrgs

    Regarding info. from D'Thomas. Now you did it, I won't be able to use that water again. LOL Not.

    Eva Vargas
    Eva Vargas subscriber

    I'd rather drink from the purified water from the ocean. I just can't get rid of the idea that it's sewage no matter how many times it had been through the purifier. Sorry.

    evavrgs
    evavrgs

    I'd rather drink from the purified water from the ocean. I just can't get rid of the idea that it's sewage no matter how many times it had been through the purifier. Sorry.

    Gordon Wagner
    Gordon Wagner subscriber

    I don't want anything to do with this. Solar-powered desalination plants are clearly the way to go. We have a BIG ocean close by. Toilet-to-tap? It sounds like a boondoggle for the usual big corporations. You know, the ones that designed the reactors at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. So, no, no, thank you. I'll stick with the stolen Northern California and Arizona water. And then run it through the water filters installed in my house.

    xwagner
    xwagner

    I don't want anything to do with this. Solar-powered desalination plants are clearly the way to go. We have a BIG ocean close by. Toilet-to-tap? It sounds like a boondoggle for the usual big corporations. You know, the ones that designed the reactors at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. So, no, no, thank you. I'll stick with the stolen Northern California and Arizona water. And then run it through the water filters installed in my house.

    Tom Wins
    Tom Wins subscriber

    This is the emotional spin/forget the facts type of journalism that gets attention but discredits news organization. It doesn't serve the public though it does sell newspapers.

    tomwins
    tomwins

    This is the emotional spin/forget the facts type of journalism that gets attention but discredits news organization. It doesn't serve the public though it does sell newspapers.

    Dennis Faulkner
    Dennis Faulkner subscriber

    Also, what happens when these plants that turn sewage water into "drinking water" malfunction? You know it will happen -

    appledude
    appledude

    Also, what happens when these plants that turn sewage water into "drinking water" malfunction? You know it will happen -