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The Strange Battle to Control a Bunch of Sewage

The Navy plans to pay Imperial Beach to carry away sewage from its new multimillion-dollar campus. The problem: The new campus is not in Imperial Beach. It’s in Coronado. Now Coronado is suing to stop the deal, claiming it should get first rights to the sewage.

For much of human history, we’ve tried to move sewage – worthless, dangerous and disgusting – as far away from us as possible.

Now, sewage has become a valuable commodity. Water agencies across San Diego County are working on projects to turn sewer water into water that’s clean enough to spread on lawns or even drink.

In Coronado, a dispute has erupted over who controls sewage from the island and who can profit from it.

At the heart of the tension is the Navy’s new campus on the southern end of Coronado. The 170-acre coastal facility will eventually house several thousand people from the Naval Special Warfare Command, including four teams of Navy SEALs. They will generate about 200,000 gallons per day of sewage.

The Navy plans to pay Imperial Beach to carry that sewage away from the new campus. But that’s where the trouble begins: The new campus is not in Imperial Beach. It’s in Coronado.

In a lawsuit, Coronado officials are trying to block the Navy’s sewer deal because they say it is a “direct affront to Coronado’s municipal sovereignty.” The lawsuit argues that the Coronado should get first dibs on providing sewer service to the Navy. Other Navy installations on Coronado send their sewage to Coronado, so why not this new one?

Coronado officials also worry that a private water company is going to buy Imperial Beach’s sewage system and then gain access to and profit from the Navy’s sewage. A privatized sewage system in Imperial Beach could thwart a years-long effort by Coronado to bring down its own water costs.

The company, California American Water, currently provides drinking water to all of Coronado and Imperial Beach.

If Cal American bought Imperial Beach’s sewage system, it could build a sewage recycling plant, treat the water, then sell the recycled water to parks or golf courses in Imperial Beach and Coronado.

Most water agencies in California are public agencies. Cal American is not. It’s a private company and exists now as a sort-of middleman: It buys drinking water from a public water agency – the city of San Diego’s water department – and resells that water to customers in Imperial Beach and Coronado.

But Cal American does not provide sewer services. Coronado and Imperial Beach’s sewer systems are still publicly owned.

To recycle water, Cal American needs a treatment plant and access to wastewater, two things it does not have. (Wastewater is just another word for sewage and sewer water.)

Imperial Beach’s city manager, Andy Hall, said in an email that the privatization discussions are informal. City voters would have to approve any sale.

Cal American would also need a new pipeline to carry this recycled water, which would be treated but not treated enough that it would be safe to drink. Nor would it be safe enough to travel in the same pipelines as the drinking water Cal American already sells.

So, earlier this month, Cal American told the California Public Utilities Commission it wants to raise rates for its customers in Imperial Beach and Coronado, in part so the company can spend $23 million on a new pipeline through the two cities. The new pipeline would run next to a 104-year-old pipeline that Cal American already operates. The new pipeline would deliver drinking water. The old pipeline could be converted to deliver recycled water.

This could be a problem Coronado. Since 2009, the city has tried to develop its own recycled water system on the northern part of the island.

One of the main drivers behind Coronado’s effort is a city-owned golf course there. The course recently ran a deficit, in part because it costs nearly $900,000 a year to water. That is water that Coronado buys from Cal American.

The city hoped to reduce those water costs by using recycled water that it would treat itself.

But Coronado ran into an obstacle that also put it at odds with the Navy. The city does not have a lot of free land suitable for a sewage treatment plant. It has some land at the golf course but officials worried that a sewage recycling plant there might smell. That would drive away golfers, defeating the original point of trying to shore up the course’s finances.

So, the city turned to the Navy. The Navy owns several large swaths of land on Coronado, including some land that is apparently free. The city asked the Navy for some land where it could put a treatment plant.

The Navy eventually rejected that offer.

Coronado City Manager Blair King said he wondered if the Navy rejected the offer because the city was beginning to raise questions about the Navy’s deal with Imperial Beach.

The Navy told King the decision was not retribution. (The Navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Three Coronado City Council members and King said that two wastewater disputes – one over land on the northern part of Coronado, the other over the Navy’s deal with Imperial Beach – are not, apparently, directly related.

So, the Navy isn’t retaliating against Coronado, and Coronado is not retaliating against the Navy, but that does not mean the relationship is smooth sailing.

Indeed, the lawsuit the city filed was not against the Navy, though a victory for Coronado would throw at least a small wrench in the Navy’s plans for its new campus, which is already expected to take a decade to build and cost $700 million.

Instead, the city in January sued Imperial Beach and the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission. The commission, known as LAFCO, is an obscure agency that oversees government boundary lines. In December, the commission rejected Coronado’s request to effectively prevent Imperial Beach from providing sewer services to the Navy without Coronado’s permission.

Coronado dropped Imperial Beach from the lawsuit because Imperial Beach cut a side deal with Coronado in April. In that deal, Imperial Beach promised that Coronado “should have the right to any value derived from the wastewater” that Imperial Beach collects from the Navy. That specifically includes the value of that sewage if Imperial Beach sells its wastewater system to Cal American or another entity.

“If they were going to be recognizing gain from that, we don’t want to be chumps,” King said.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said he was glad Coronado and Imperial Beach came to an agreement.

“We all worked diligently to make sure that this issue did not harm the more than 60 years of friendship and partnership between the city of Imperial Beach and the city of Coronado and the strong family and friendship ties between our residents,” he said in an email.

But Imperial Beach’s promise did not end Coronado’s beef with LAFCO. Coronado wants a judge to step in and order the commission to prevent the Navy from sending its sewage to Imperial Beach without Coronado’s permission.

The commission has said it has no jurisdiction over the matter.

The Navy, for its part, said last year that it has no interest in entering into a contract with Coronado similar to the one it has with Imperial Beach.

“A new sewer service agreement is not required and is not being considered,” Naval Base Coronado’s then-commanding officer said in a letter.

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