San Diego’s Big Green Stories - Voice of San Diego

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San Diego’s Big Green Stories

What to expect from our coverage of the environment in the coming year.

 

During the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time editing. But I’m returning to full-time reporting. My focus: The environment, public agencies and monitoring the U-T San Diego under its new ownership.

My goal this year is no different than it ever has been: Impactful stories that illuminate and hold people accountable. What has that looked like before? In the six years I’ve been at voiceofsandiego.org, I’ve covered the environment, focusing on water, climate change and endangered species. I’ve investigated public agencies, exposing secret meetings at a local water agency, a redevelopment executive with conflicts of interest and an airport authority that didn’t follow its own rules. I’ve continually monitored businesses like San Diego Gas & Electric and the U-T.

As I refocus on the environment, here are some of the major story lines I’ll be tracking:

1. Start Your Bulldozers!

The county’s construction business, left for dead after the housing bubble exploded, is showing signs of life. Or at least a pulse.

A 400-unit multi-family project is being built in eastern Chula Vista. (Yes, that Chula Vista, the city socked hardest when the bubble burst.)

Civita, a project that will build 5,000 homes in the next decade, is underway in Mission Valley, with 500 apartments and condos scheduled to be finished this year. And Merriam Mountains, a high-profile project in the unincorporated area north of Escondido, is being revisited. County supervisors narrowly killed the original 2,700-home project in 2010, citing its environmental impacts.

Real estate analysts say the market is ever-so-slightly on the uptick. Most projects being built aren’t large-scale projects like Otay Ranch with thousands of homes, said Peter Dennehy, an analyst with John Burns Real Estate Consulting. They’re rental apartments catering to 20-somethings who aren’t yet ready to buy a home but are ready to move out of their parents’.

But developers may start getting larger projects, like Merriam Mountains, ready for a time — years away — when the housing market is stronger.

“The development cycle itself is only going to be making modest movement this year,” said Gary London, a local real estate analyst. “Anything like Merriam, these are projects that if they were built today wouldn’t be sold profitably.”

Development is intertwined with many of San Diego’s modern environmental issues. Its sprawl defined our car-centric lifestyles. It pushed out many native species that are now endangered. And the green lawns it sprouted have relied on a water supply imported from hundreds of miles away. I’ve written before about complications in regional plans outlining where people can build and where will be protected. I’ll be keeping an eye on those issues as the home-building business fires up again.

2. A Poop Plan.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Most of San Diego’s sewage is treated at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant and then pumped into the Pacific Ocean.

 

This is the year San Diego gets a glimpse of the future of everything it flushes down the toilet.

The city’s main sewage treatment plant, tucked into the western bluffs of Point Loma, is the only major plant on the West Coast that fails to meet federal pollution standards. It treats roughly 175 million gallons of sewage each day, but doesn’t remove the required amount of crud before pumping it out into the ocean.

Local environmentalists have pushed the city for years to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. But city has resisted, saying an upgrade to the plant could cost $1.5 billion and provide little benefit to the ocean’s health.

So every five years, the city applies for a waiver of those federal rules. Environmentalists agreed not to challenge the last application in 2009. In return, the city hired a consultant to figure out what the city could do with its sewage.

That study, scheduled for a March release, could serve as a blueprint for the city’s fledgling efforts to use purified sewage as a drinking water source. The city faces increasing pressure from the federal government and local environmentalists to overhaul its sewage treatment infrastructure. The feds want to see San Diego consider sewage as a resource that can be reused, not wasted.

Marco Gonzalez, an Encinitas environmental attorney who pushed for the analysis, said it will show, for example, that reusing 100 million gallons of sewage daily from Point Loma could cut the cost of an upgrade there by $500 million.

The city is already in the midst of an effort to determine whether it can safely turn treated sewage into drinking water. Other water suppliers have proven it can be done safely. If health regulators sign off, San Diego hasn’t decided where it would build a plant (or plants) to purify sewage, how large it’d be or how it’d be paid for.

Enter the March study.

3. A Step Toward Salt-Free Water.

Courtesy photo
An aerial shot of the planned location for Poseidon’s Carlsbad desalination plant.

 

A seawater desalination plant proposed in Carlsbad could eventually produce 50 million gallons of drinking water daily, enough for 112,000 homes a year. It would be the first major plant of its kind on the West Coast, providing about 8 percent of the county’s water.

But it has to get built first. And to do that, its private developer, Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources, needs money, which it has struggled to find.

Poseidon had originally planned to sell water to a handful of local water agencies. But after that languished, the San Diego County Water Authority, the wholesaler that supplies local cities, stepped in and now plans to buy the plant’s water. That would give developers the financial guarantees they need before construction can start.

If the plant is built, the region would get a drought-proof water supply. It would come at a cost, too. Because it takes so much energy to filter the salt out of seawater, the new supply would be the authority’s most expensive source.

Ken Weinberg, the authority’s water resources director, says his agency expects to pay about $1,865 per acre-foot of water (equal to about 326,000 gallons, or enough for two households for a year). That price has more than doubled since the plant was first proposed a decade ago. Back then, its developers estimated the water would sell for $800 an acre-foot — a price described then as alluringly cheap.

The water authority today sells treated water to local cities for $1,148 an acre-foot.

The authority plans to strike the final deal this summer. The plant isn’t expected to be operational until 2016.

4. Planning Transportation’s Future.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
State Attorney General Kamala Harris is suing over plans for San Diego County’s transportation future.

 

One of last year’s big stories isn’t over: San Diego’s plan for its future transportation decisions.

It’s an outline for how the region will spend $200 billion on roads, bikeways and public transit over the next 40 years. It’s the first plan in the state to have to comply with a new law requiring it to reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next 25 years.

But the plan doesn’t effect lasting reductions: They drop until 2020 then begin to increase again. And though the effort spends more on transit than roads, the roads are prioritized. Environmentalists say that will undercut later transit spending.

Green groups have sued the San Diego Association of Governments, which drafted the plan, saying it doesn’t do enough to get San Diego drivers off the roads. Attorney General Kamala Harris followed with her own lawsuit in January. The litigation is an indication that neither the state nor environmentalists want to see Sandag’s approach become precedent in California — and are willing to fight. The results of those lawsuits could affect the region’s plans for road building and transit spending.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so tell me what I’m missing and what you think I should be covering this year. And what are the big environmental storylines you’ll be following in 2012? Post a comment or send me an email.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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