Fact Check: Spiking San Diego’s Water Supply With Recycled Water

Fact Check: Spiking San Diego’s Water Supply With Recycled Water

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MostlyTrue

Statement: “As one example, the San Diego Bay Council points to the city of San Diego’s water reuse project that could supply up to 40 percent of San Diego’s water needs,” the San Diego Bay Council wrote in a March 26 press release.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: The San Diego County Water Authority board recently approved the agency’s long-range water infrastructure road map, a plan environmental groups say is too dependent on pricey outside sources.

The San Diego Bay Council, a coalition of these groups, argues the county water wonks should put a greater emphasis on conservation and recycling wastewater, which can be transformed into drinking water.

The group claimed in a March 26 press release that San Diego’s recycled water project alone could fulfill as much as 40 percent of the city’s water needs.

I decided to fact check this statement because the city now imports nearly 80 percent of its water from the distant Colorado River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a dynamic that’s gotten more attention in the midst of the state’s worst-ever droughts. Getting more than a third of its water from an inside source would be significantAnd it would be even more noteworthy if the city could draw that much from recycled water.

The city wants to recycle 101 million gallons of sewage daily by 2035.

Those efforts are also partly motivated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has repeatedly given the city waivers to cope with its outdated Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. That is the city’s major sewage treatment plant and it pumps millions of gallons of waste into the ocean that doesn’t meet stringent federal pollution guidelines, though the city’s permit exempts it from some Clean Water Act standards.

Investing in the process to turn this waste into safe drinking water would shave a significant amount off the city’s bill to revamp the Point Loma facility and shield it from at least some of the growing expense associated with imported water.

Here’s a look at the city’s estimate of the rising cost of imported water versus sinking cash into the water recycling process:

Graphic courtesy city of San Diego

Graphic courtesy city of San Diego

As you can see, either approach will cost the city but public utilities officials estimate they’ll save at least $250 million over 20 years with the recycling process.

But would all this investment deliver up to 40 percent of the city’s water supply?

Ann Sasaki, an assistant director in the city’s public utilities department, said the city estimates it’ll need to provide 267 million gallons of water daily by 2035 to meet residents’ needs.

In about 10 years, Sasaki said the city hopes to expand its North City reclamation plant in Mira Mesa so it can process 15 million gallons of recycled sewage each day.

Sasaki said this figure and other city estimates factor in losses associated with sewage and water treatment processes. It’s a multi-step operation. Wastewater will go through the city’s typical procedures and then through advanced-water treatment. From there, the water will sit in the city’s San Vicente reservoir for a period of time. It will eventually be treated again before it makes its way through San Diegans’ taps.

The next step will be to bolster the city’s South Bay plant in the Tijuana River Valley, which the city envisions eventually handling 15 million gallons of sewage daily.

These two plants would produce another 18 million gallons of recycled water that city plans to use for industrial or irrigation uses too.

The city also wants to build a new plant on Harbor Drive that would treat another 53 million gallons of water per day, Sasaki said.

This adds up to 101 million gallons of processed recycled water each day.

That total fulfills about 38 percent of the city’s projected 2035 water needs, just shy of the 40 percent the San Diego Bay Council claimed in its press release.

But there are a couple crucial nuances worth pointing out.

The Bay Council used another formula to come to this total. They added up the total capacity of the city’s three drinking water treatment plants to come up with an estimated water supply need. They also assumed about 10 percent of the water would be lost in the treatment process, meaning 320 million gallons of sewage would need to be processed each day to fulfill the roughly 40 percent the group claimed the recycling project could bring in.

Also, it will be more than two decades before San Diegans can assess the success of city efforts to transform wastewater into safe drinking water and the city’s public utilities department is still hashing out its plans. They’re set to deliver more detailed ones to the City Council this fall – which brings us to another potential variable. The city’s elected leaders could decide they’d prefer another approach and push for changes that affect the amount of recycled sewage the city plans to convert into drinking water.

These unknowns make the San Diego Bay Council’s statement mostly true.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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35 comments
Robertkm49
Robertkm49 subscriber

Regrettably, now is the time for everyone to own a steam distillation system (which mimics the natural hydrologic cycle of water purification) -- so as to insure safe drinking water for consumption.  As is customary, we can no longer trust self-serving interest groups, governments, regulatory agencies, politicians, etc. AND must take matters into our own hands.  Unfortunately, not everyone understands or even knows what is going on behind their backs and even fewer people can afford to purchase or build and maintain their own distillation system.  It is important to note that the proponents of this toilet-to-tap scheme are now re-branding this concept as "water reuse" in an attempt to cover things up and put a different spin on the topic -- propaganda word games -- in hopes of making it an easier sell to that small segment, of general public, who DOES SMELL what is going on.  Perhaps we need UN Inspectors to come in and evaluate what is going on here, as they did in the Central Valley (CA) a few years ago.  That might help breakup the cozy self-serving and narrow minded local "Wacky Water Club".  It would certainly make for interesting press: "UN Inspects City Water Practices ... Finds Gross Problems".  

james marple
james marple subscriber

 Recycling sewage to drinking water quality in our city that receives 91 billion gallons of rainfall yearly and uses only 30 billion in its households is plain stupid. Guiding this rainfall into the soil instead of dumping it to the ocean would provide ample pure water to meet home needs and be fully recycled at minimal cost to irrigation. (Imported water is too polluted to be cost-effectively recycled.)

A small, token Low Impact Development program to catch rain is in progress. It proves the deceit of public servants who know perfectly well that saving all of our rain would be far less  costly and much more beneficial than recycling sewage to drinking water quality Fast-tracking retrofit of this tech would cost much less and could begin immediately.

  Water district and public works officials have colluded over the past half-century to expand their incomes and power by building unnecessary drainage systems instead of the simple retention modes that comply with the CA Water Code.(Demonstrated with great success by Fresno planning that guides all stormwater into the soil to provide more water than its homes use even though that city receives much less rainfall. 

  San Diego's civil engineers cannot credibly claim they are unable to save the one gallon out of three that would meet all household needs and be totally recycled to irrigation. 

  Our County and City Attorneys should be forcing them to do this.


James Weber
James Weber subscriber

Do you prefer your water smooth or chunky?

Matty Azure
Matty Azure subscriber

Diner: "Waiter!  There's a fly in my soup!!"

Waiter: "Just pour in some of your water. The E. coli will kill it." 

Mark Robak
Mark Robak subscriber

The North City Treatment Plant is built to treat "up to 30 million gallons of wastewater per day" (MGD) which you will read when you click on the link provided in the article http://bit.ly/OlqjyG That of course is not to drinking water standards (potable), but close to it and what the water reuse project is all about.

The Point Loma Treatment plant treats 175 MGD per day to an advanced primary level http://bit.ly/1dZoBzr  So between just those two facilities, there is the potential for over 200 MGD of potable water. That should be our long term goal.  

Also, no need to build an expensive pipeline to San Vicente Reservoir to put that highly treated wastewater.  Put it right back into the potable water system (direct potable reuse). http://bit.ly/1e1pCqd  We have the technology to do it, but lack the backbone.

As to the detractors of potable reuse, about 63% of San Diego County's water comes from the Colorado River http://bit.ly/Py7SYL and on that river are in excess of 280 discharge permits.  So the water we drink has been used many times over before it even reached us at the end of the pipeline.

Here's a great article that addresses what I was talking about regarding not building a pipeline to San Vicente Reservoir http://bit.ly/1oFEIGA  I highlighted the specific comments.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

The Metropolitan Water District and the SD County Water Authority are quietly opposing wastewater re-purification because it would give local governments a new supply of water they've already paid for, and reduce their own sales of imported water to the cities and other member water districts. When you look at how the price of imported water is scheduled to skyrocket in coming years, even without the hugely expensive proposed Delta tunnels project, it makes economic sense for cities and local water agencies to make better use of the water they've already bought instead of just flushing it into the ocean and buying more expensive imported water supplies.  

Donald Yeckel
Donald Yeckel subscribermember

Lisa'a article that the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant ("pumps millions of gallons of waste into the ocean that doesn’t meet stringent federal pollution guidelines ...") might leave the impression that we are presently dumping partially raw sewage into the ocean. Not so. The plant removes all but the smallest dissolved organic solids from waste water and dumps it 4 1/2 miles off the coast in 320 feet of water. The "stringent federal pollution guidelines" are more intended for sewage discharged into inland bodies of water like the Colorado River, not 4 1/2 miles offshore in the open ocean. Experts including scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have testified that the ocean outfall from the Point Loma facility does not pollute the ocean, and indeed, enriches it.

Gaby Dow
Gaby Dow subscribermember

It is an exciting time to finally get water reuse programs on line for our region. I visited the Orange County reuse facility last month and was so impressed. They have only been online for about 5 years and have seen such success that they are ALREADY EXPANDING the plant to take what would be wasted water and make the most of this precious resource. It's time for us to get started here in San Diego by at least continuing the steps to fully understand proposed program details :)

We have delayed too many opportunities to modernize our water treatment capabilities and tap into proven innovation. What used to be a big "Yuck" reaction has turned into an even bigger "No Duh" reaction when people realize how much was wasted by putting our water reuse program on hold almost 15 years ago while other communities moved forward and are now realizing the tremendous benefits.

Having worked on the city's water repurification program back in 1999 I saw first-hand how campaign season fear-based press conferences and sensationalistic "Toilet to Tap" headlines missed an opportunity for the public to understand where San Diego's water already comes from. We are too smart to let that happen again-- get educated on where our current water already comes from and what we need to put into place for future generations, not to mention the massive cost effect of continuing to do nothing.

I am glad to see more balanced, thoughtful coverage now and strong leadership from our elected officials and environmental, community organizations to implement long-term solutions for one of the most important, basic resources.

It was especially interesting to read the 2008 article linked in your story: http://voiceofsandiego.org/2008/10/03/how-sewage-gets-recycled/

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Toilet to tap is going to happen regardless how distasteful the concept. 

Water rates are going to continue up no mater what.

Sewer rates are going to continue to go up no mater what.

We will continue to hear about being out of water yet we continue to develop thus increasing population.

There will be plenty of water in the future for those willing to pay for it while the majority will conserve due to economics.

All of this even if we get future years of heavy snow pack and improved infrastructure....you will not see a decrease in rates. 

This has more to do with pricing and revenue than supply and demand of water.

Belinda Smith
Belinda Smith subscriber

Orange County, Scottsdale, Texas, etc are all already drinking recycled wastewater. San Diego needs to implement this program if we want a low cost source for the future.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

“Ann Sasaki, an assistant director in the city’s public utilities department, said the city estimates it’ll need to provide 267 million gallons of water daily by 2035 to meet residents’ needs.”

According to the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department, the population of the city of San Diego will be “over 1.69 million in 2035”.

The Red Cross says a person needs a gallon per day for drinking, food preparation, and hygene. So by this measure, San Diego will need to provide 1.69 million gallons of water daily. That’s 1/158th of Sasaki’s estimate.

Why is Sasaki overestimating San Diego’s water needs by a factor of 158? I think this is worth a fact check of its own.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

The sad part is that due to fear mongering, ignorance and weak leadership San Diego is 20 years behind where it could have been.  

Pat McKemy
Pat McKemy subscriber

@AzureMattyUnfortunately this seems to be true in the present scenario. But jokes apart, there is certainly a big problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. There is so much of water but the authorities do not want to make it available to the public for want to money.

Mike Lee
Mike Lee subscriber

@Don Wood

The San Diego County Water Authority supports a wide range of local water resource development efforts by its member agencies, including the city of San Diego’s potable reuse project. The Water Authority has a long history of advancing potable reuse in San Diego County, and it worked closely with the city of San Diego and state health officials in the mid- and late-1990s by taking the lead in developing and gaining initial regulatory support for the concept that the city is advancing today.

In the last year, the Water Authority led the effort to work with legislators, regulators and water agencies such as the city of San Diego, Padre Dam Municipal Water District, Helix Water District, the city of Escondido and others to promote and ultimately pass the legislation necessary to expedite developing uniform state-wide criteria to actually move forward on potable reuse in San Diego County and the rest of California.

The Water Authority has always recognized that the beneficial reuse of wastewater in general, and the city’s potable reuse project in particular, has a large potential to help our region further diversify its water supply portfolio. The Water Authority’s long-range plans acknowledge the city’s efforts to complete a potable reuse project, which if successful, will minimize the need for additional water supply development in the region.

Ken Weinberg
Director of Water Resources
San Diego County Water Authority

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

@Don Wood  

You are correct Don but the city also has an agenda similar to MWD and SDCWA. 

Its just as much about power and money as it is with water.

Both will ultimately deliver less and charge more. If we get years of heavy snow pack and abundant water  consumers will not see a rate decrease.

“whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over”. Still true

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Jones: The term toilet to tap is precisely the sort of fear mongering I was referring to in my earlier post. It lacks any sort of scientific rigor and goes straight to people's base fears. It's also grossly disingenuous in more ways than one. No one has ever proposed a direct connection of toilet to tap, which makes the phrase untrue on its face. Orange County, California, a bastion of conservatism, has been using water purification for years and no one seems to have a care about it. What is the basis for your statement that this is a "risk to the population?"

Belinda Smith
Belinda Smith subscriber

Jim, 200 municipalities along the Colorado already dump their treated waste water back into it when they're done. We are effectively already drinking it. So not sure what you mean by "risk".

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Hoffman: The concept of one gallon per day is not realistic. Anyone in the City of San Diego's Water Utilities system can find their use by multiplying the HCF number on the bill by 748 (gallons in one HCF) then dividing by the number of days in the bill (usually about 60) and then by the number of people in the household. In my household, with mostly drought tolerant exterior plants our use varies from 35 - 50 gallons per person per day. I think it's very achievable, but it's clearly not the norm. When we had a lawn it was at least double that.

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

@Derek Hofmann --The per capita water use daily in 2006 (based on a 2009 article in the U-T) was 180 gallons per person.  Sasaki's estimates are really quite accurate.

Belinda Smith
Belinda Smith subscriber

Agreed, Chris.

Luckily that leadership is gone!

We are now in a great position to think of our kids and finally get this done!

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

@Chris Brewster I think you're confusing needs with wants. For example, you don't need exterior plants on your property.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

@David Crossley Sasaki was talking about our needs, not our current water use. I know this because she used the word "needs." As I proved, our needs are only 1 gallon per person per day, which is 1/158th of what Sasaki thinks our needs are.

I suspect she is trying to redefine the word "needs" to mean "our current per capita water use," perhaps as part of an agenda of fear mongering in order to push through more water projects, but these projects and/or an increased population will push up the price of water. As the price of water goes up, per capita consumption will go down, if you know how to read a demand curve. Therefore, it's not reasonable to expect that our daily per capita water use will remain the same today and forever.

LaVieQ
LaVieQ subscribermember

@Jim Jones

>> No, it's a question as to what business you have in San Diego local politics

Your note made a claim about TTT (that it is unhealthy) that I responded to with an example to show that it works and has worked well for a long while. You respond by shifting the burden of proof for something unrelated (my right to participate in SD politics) on me. Ergo: argumentum ad hominem.

It may be that I am from SD. It may be that I am a tax payer in SD. It may be that I've donated to VofSD. But, that's not the point that should concern you, is it?

I gave an example to counter a specific position you took in your note:

"With toilet to tap you start with a much much more contaminated source, and that magnifies the chance of disaster manifold times." 

Further, I did not take a for/against position on TTT for SD. This is a discussion thread - neither a vote nor part of a political decision making process of any sort. I know how to participate in a political decision, and, that certainly does not require discussion of this sort.


Adios.

hockeysuit
hockeysuit subscriber

@LaVieQ  Yeah, stop telling us San Diegans what to eat and drink!


Just kidding.  Nice of you to contribute to our reasoned discussion.  As for trolls, I imagine they're pretty much the same around the globe.


Cheers!

LaVieQ
LaVieQ subscribermember

@Jim Jones

>> If you live in Singapore why are you posting on a San Diego forum?


Huh? Argumentum ad hominem.  :-)

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

@Jim Jones @Chris Brewster   Jim Jones, Try again!  The link worked for me, and ironically the headline starts "Toilet to tap.....".  You must be a Susan Golding supporter, Jim.  That "toilet to tap" crap she started set us back at least ten years.  Maybe good old Susan could run for mayor again; Jerry Brown made it work at the state level.  Send her a contribution to encourage her.

LaVieQ
LaVieQ subscribermember

@Jim Jones

Wow! So many claims in so few lines... :-) 

I currently live in Singapore, where TTT is alive and has been going strong for decades. I've been drinking the tap water here for the last 8 years. My health, if anything, has improved since moving here from the US.  Of course, the improvement could be due to any number of causal factors unrelated to TTT, but, most certainly I have neither sickened nor has my health regressed in any fashion. Nor have I heard of any ill effects from TTT in this country where the slightest case of food poisoning creates a brouhaha in the press and a bigger to-do in the government and amongst the populace.

Yes, surely, there is a possibility of a catastrophic failure where the water gets contaminated and people sicken and die.  But, by that logic no one should live along the fault lines in CA.


Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Jones: The water also starts at the kitchen sink, the shower, the dishwasher, the washing machine, etc. The term toilet to tap has been effectively used by opponents to conjure the aspect they think will be most repellent. Meanwhile, water in our reservoirs includes animal waste and all sorts of other natural impurities, but is brought to a prescribed level of purity before being sent to us. All San Diego consumers of public water receive a very extensive report breaking down the amount (or lack thereof) of impurities versus the lawful maximums. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/1kcFV6k. Personally, I use neither bottled water nor a water filter, having read those reports many times.

With respect to how the water is filtered for things like paint chemicals and prescription and non-prescription drugs and other hazards that are flushed, perhaps this will help: http://bit.ly/1idOjz6 Note the statement that, “It's actually purer than any other source of water that we have to put into our groundwater basin.”

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Hoffman: I agree that you don't need exterior plants on the property. We replaced our high water landscape with very low water native landscape because we thought it was the right thing to do and we've been much happier with it. Because of the low cost of water, it saves us some money on the monthly bill, but probably will take 20 years to pay off. However, we certainly could have replaced it with gravel, so we didn't need it and without it. That said, our water consumption per person is on the very low end of the scale in San Diego as near as I can tell. Because we use native plants, the watering is quite limited. The reality is that people tend to really like lawns, which require a high amount of water and until or unless grass is banned, people like ourselves will be on the low end of the consumption scale. In summary, I don't think I'm confusing needs with wants. We don't need any outdoor shrubbery, but until it is banned, we'll be underconsuming water as compared to the norm in San Diego. Future planning for San Diego water needs has to be based on realistic numbers. 

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

@Derek Hofmann @David Crossley --You proved nothing--you just stated the Red Cross said we needed 1 gallon per day.

Belinda Smith
Belinda Smith subscriber

In times of drought, we need to conserve, and get our usage down to 50 gallons per person like they do in Australia.

We are living beyond our water means if we are growing tropical plants in our SD gardens!