Poway part of regional effort to solve sewage issues

By Steve Dreyer

How the San Diego region addresses its substantial sewage treatment issues in years to come, and how much it will cost ratepayers, will be the subject discussion next week in San Diego where Poway will have a significant voice.

Poway is a member of what is called the Metro Wastewater Joint Powers Authority. Poway officials are strongly advocating that the City of San Diego abandon its request for a third, five-year federal waiver of its aging Point Loma processing plant and instead concentrate on treating about 16 percent of the region’s sewage to the point where it is as clean as distilled water. That processed water would then be pumped into the San Vincente Reservoir and eventually re-treated before entering the drinking-water pipe system.

Years ago the concept was labeled “toilet to tap.” Now it’s called “advanced water purification.”

On Wednesday, JPA member representatives will present their “Regional Water Reuse Plan” to the San Diego City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee. The plan projects both substantial savings in construction costs and in future rates when compared to the alternative of upgrading the Point Loma plant to meet federal discharge standards.

Poway Deputy John Mullin, the city’s representative on the JPA, said Wednesday that while informal, staff-level discussions with the city have yielded some positive feedback, next Wednesday will mark the first time the plan will be presented to San Diego elected officials.

San Diego’s buy-in is vital as the city owns and operates the key processing plants involved in the plan and generates 65 percent of the region’s sewage, Mullin said.

A little background is in order here.

Sewage generated in Poway is not processed in town. Instead, it is piped to the City of San Diego-owned North City Water Reclamation Plant near University Town Center. There a small portion the water is specially treated to remove 99 percent of solids and is returned to Poway to be used to irrigate the business park. The rest of Poway's sewage then heads to the San Diego-owned “advanced primary” treatment plant in Point Loma. This 50-year-old plant then treats the water to the point where up to 87 percent of solids are removed. From there the water is pumped 4.5 miles offshore and is put into the ocean.

For years, the Point Loma plant has been problematic for the City of San Diego. Federal standards call for sewage to be treated at the “secondary’ level (up to 90 percent of solids removed) before it can be put in the ocean. Since the Point Loma plant can’t do that, special waivers need to be obtained every five years. The current waiver expires in 2015. San Diego is now the only city and county needing a waiver and, according to both Mullin and Poway Public Works Director Leah Browder, there appears to be some question as to whether another waiver will be approved. Browder also said that numerous studies have shown that the treated sewage pumped into the ocean from Point Loma poses no environmental threats.

For years there has been talk, about building a state-of-the-art plant to serve the region’s needs. Local agencies, including Poway, have set aside millions of dollars to pay for their fair share of the plant. (In recent years Poway has used some of the $12 million it has set aside to stabilize municipal sewer rates.)

Whether the feds will ever permanently agree to allow “advanced primary” treated sewage in the ocean is unclear. What is clear is that upgrading the Point Loma plant to “secondary” standards is going to be very expensive: about $3.5 billion, according to the JPA report. The costs would be borne by ratepayers across the county. According to Browder, Poway rates would at least double just to pay the city’s share of the expansion cost.

As an alternative, the JPA plan calls for spending $1 billion on an “advanced water purification facility,” either at North City or another location. The new plant would process up to 86 million gallons a day (MGD), about 16 percent the region’s annual sewage. That, according to the report, would significantly lessen the load handled at Point Loma and, at the same time, would create a new, local, sustainable water supply. It might also set the stage for federal legislation granting the Point Loma plant, now putting much less treated sewage into the ocean, a permanent wavier.

Local sewer rates will still go up to pay for the construction, but not by nearly as much, Browder said.

The City of San Diego in 2008 authorized spending $11.8 million to operate a small version of an advanced purification facility at the North City plant. For the past year the equipment has been purifying about 1 million gallons per day (MDG).

One option being considered by the City of San Diego is to increase the capacity of the demonstration plant to 15 MGD. The key, according to both Mullin and Browder, will be to get the city to expand its vision beyond addressing its own sewage treatment needs and to look regionally for a cost-saving solution.

That process officially starts on Wednesday, July 31.

   
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