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Environment Report: County Penalized for Sewage Spill Into Local River

States could voluntarily forgo Colorado River water to avoid a doomsday, officials are working to avoid affects of PG&E’s bankruptcy on the community choice energy movement and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

A damaged county sewer line spilled 900,000 gallons of sewage into Los Coches Creek. / Photo courtesy of San Diego County

San Diego County has agreed to pay nearly $700,000 for a pipeline rupture that dumped raw sewage into a San Diego River tributary.

The spill sent about 760,000 gallons of sewage into Los Coches Creek in February and March 2017, violating the federal Clean Water Act, among other state and federal rules. Those rules allowed the Regional Water Quality Control Board to penalize the county up to $7.8 million, but instead the county and regulators agreed to settle. The resulting fines amount to less than 90 cents per gallon of the spilled sewage.

The spill started when a 12-inch plastic pipe owned by the county dislodged from a sewer main during a storm and began emptying sewage into Los Coches, a creek in an unincorporated part of the county near El Cajon. A neighbor first noticed the damaged pipe on the evening of Feb. 28, but didn’t report the spill. County workers eventually found it more than two weeks later.

From then on, the bureaucracy did its thing. The regional board told the county to submit a report within 45 days of finishing repairs. The county waited 264 days.

The county also concluded that, “if recreational exposure occurred during this period,” raw sewage and bacteria in a major waterway was bad and put the public at risk, according to the proposed settlement agreement.

While most San Diegans get water and sewer service from a city or regional district, the county has its own sanitation district that serves about 36,000 customers in parts of East County, including Alpine, Lakeside, Julian and Campo.

If the settlement is approved, the county will pay half the $662,414 fine to the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento and use the other half to prevent future spills into Los Coches.

Deal or No Deal, Colorado River’s Problems Roll on

For decades, Arizona and California have been fighting over how to share the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million in the western United States and Mexico.

Last week, Arizona lawmakers rushed to bless a deal that changes how states share the river. The voluntary deal is supposed to prevent federal bureaucrats at the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation from stepping in to ration the river.

The deal is meant to do two things. States would forgo water to avoid a doomsday if a two-decade drought continues much longer. That’s good for everyone.

In the short term, California and Nevada would also give up water so Arizona doesn’t face devastating cutbacks. At least on paper, California’s rights to the river’s water are so secure that Arizona’s water supply would have to run dry before California loses a single drop.

But the federal government isn’t convinced that the states can finalize a deal in time. Despite three years of talking about the deal and all kinds of commitments to sign it, the deal is still unsigned, despite the new legislation in Arizona. On Friday, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman gave states a few months to reach a final deal. After that, she could step in using powers granted to the government by a 60-year-old Supreme Court ruling in a case called Arizona v. California.

That’s because Arizona’s new law requires Congress to bless any deal before Arizona will formally sign anything — and it’s unclear how long that will take.

The largest holder of Colorado River rights — the Imperial Irrigation District, right next door to San Diego County — announced it was taking hostages. It threatened to back out of any deal unless it gets $200 million to help fill up the Salton Sea, the dying lake in Imperial County. The irrigation district has rights to as much of the river as Arizona and Nevada combined.

Add to this a bit of skepticism from one long-time Colorado River power player that the deal — known as the “drought contingency plan,” or DCP — is anything more than a temporary fix for a long-term problem. Starting in 1922, officials gave cities and farms rights to more water from the river than the river usually holds. Now, with millions more people gathered around it and climate change making things even less predictable, the river may run too thin to depend on much longer.

Pat Mulroy is the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. For years, Mulroy has talked about finding another source of water “unless you want the lawsuit of the ages” between states trying to share a shrinking river.

For a while, she’s talked about sending floodwaters from the Mississippi River to parts of eastern New Mexico and Arizona. Now, she’s talking about building ocean water desalination plants in Mexico that would free up water that could be used in the United States.

“This is all somehow going to have to work through Mexico,” Mulroy told me.

She figured that it’ll be easier to get a desalination plant built down there than up here. California is the only state that uses water from the Colorado River that isn’t landlocked. But state regulations and environmental laws have made it hard to build desalination plants. So, it may be easier to get a plant approved in Mexico, where labor is cheaper.

Mulroy, who is now a consultant working with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said people need to focus on the river’s long-term problems.

“Everybody has been focused on the DCP, everybody has been focused on the Band-Aid,” she said.

Mulroy’s views are not universal, of course. Environmentalists and others point out that cities and farms along the river could do a lot more to conserve water.

John Fleck, a long-time observer of the river, subscribes to that view. “When people have less water, they use less water,” he said, arguing that officials are getting closer to a solution along those lines.

But Mulroy’s view is that the river needs more water because after a certain amount of cutbacks, nobody is going to budge.

“What governor in their right mind is going to give away what his constituents consider their birthright?” she said.

PG&E’s Curtains Pulled Back

Since Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy protection last week, attorneys have been having a field day. So far, attorneys for the company and its creditors have submitted nearly 300 court filings. Some are administrative marginalia, but others are lengthy arguments that a judge will need to wade through.

One affects the whole “community choice” energy movement in the state. These government-run mini-utilities known as “CCAs” buy and sell power to many Northern California customers, but PG&E still owns and operates the power lines. The city of San Diego wants to form one to compete with SDG&E.

PG&E has a rocky history with CCAs. It once spent millions trying to make sure one didn’t form in Marin County. But now they appear to be on the same page when it comes to a key part of the bankruptcy proceeding. PG&E stills handles billing for CCAs, which means the governments depend on the company to make sure they get money back. Both PG&E and the governments argue that money cannot be taken by other entities that are owed money in the bankruptcy, according to a court filing by the Sonoma Clean Power Authority.

In Other News

Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

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