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Friday, Feb. 23, 2007 | For more than a week in 2000, surfers at the Ocean Beach Pier paddled out into an undetected sewer spill. An estimated 34 million gallons of sewage overflowed from a broken manhole into the San Diego River and eventually into the Pacific.

Environmentalists point to that landmark spill as a reason they’re supporting proposed water and wastewater rate increases proposed by Mayor Jerry Sanders. Soon after the spill, the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper sued the city to force upgrades to San Diego’s aging wastewater infrastructure, which was then averaging a sewer spill a day. (Spills have since been reduced 83 percent.)

Sanders has proposed rate increases of 29 percent for water bills and 35 percent for wastewater bills over the next four years to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance to the two systems.

The average single-family household will pay about $25 more monthly by 2011 — $300 annually — if the rates are approved Monday by the San Diego City Council. High-volume users will see significantly larger increases.

Part of the increases would fund the annual replacement of 40 to 50 miles of dilapidated piping in the city’s wastewater collection system — a requirement of the Surfrider-Coastkeeper lawsuit’s interim settlement.

“The municipal government risks substantial fines and an order to replace even more than the agreed-to amount if the judge overseeing the case is not satisfied with the city’s progress,” Deputy City Attorney Tom Zeleny said. Raising sewer rates to pay for the improvements is a needed signal to satisfy the judge, he said.

At a Thursday press conference, Surfrider attorney Marco Gonzalez and Coastkeeper Executive Director Bruce Reznik said they supported Sanders’ proposal, which helps fund the improvements they’d sought. Gonzalez, Reznik and Jim Peugh, conservation chair of the San Diego Audubon Society, stood alongside the mayor — an unusual position for environmentalists who are often at odds with the city’s environmental policies.

Gonzalez called the rate increase “one small step” toward improving the city’s sewage infrastructure.

“It’s time to dig deep,” he said. “It’s time to recognize that for more than 30 years we’ve ignored our infrastructure, our conveyance system, our sewage pipes.”

The rate increases will fund other improvements, including upgrades to the three municipal plants that distribute tap water to more than 1.2 million residents in the city and surrounding areas. The city agreed to a remediation plan in 1998 with the state Department of Health Services to address noncompliance with requirements for proper cryptosporidium monitoring in drinking water supplies.

Cryptosporidium is a small parasite found in fecal matter that is immune to typical chlorine treatment and requires treatment techniques that involved the gas ozone. In 1993, a cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee’s drinking water killed more than 100 people and sickened more than 400,000.

The city has received 10 extensions to the state order, and could incur fines up to $300,000 daily if the state isn’t convinced that progress is being made. “The only mechanism we have to do that is to increase water rates and charges,” Deputy City Attorney Ray Palmucci said. “But if not, they can say they have no choice but to hit the city up with fines because we’re not taking them seriously.”

The rate proposals are one of the most visible manifestations of the city’s fiscal crisis, highlighting how its impacts affect local government’s most basic and important functions. Since the city’s credit rating was suspended in late 2004, it has been unable to borrow money in public markets to fund essential infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, environmentalists say the city’s sewer infrastructure is aging and needs constant attention to ensure that sewer spills don’t increase.

“We need to be ever-vigilant,” Reznik said. “This is the kind of investment in our sewer infrastructure that’s needed.”

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a local ratepayer advocate, questioned the environmentalists’ endorsement of Sanders’ plan.

“Their position is being more fueled by their ideology and their bias than any independent analysis that says the city needs all this money,” Shames said. “Marco and Bruce are jumping on, saying we trust the mayor and his analysts. I love that they trust the mayor.”

Reznik said he was sympathetic to Shames’ concerns, and acknowledged that the wastewater rate increase, which will cost the average homeowner $10 a month by 2011, was largely the result of the Surfrider-Coastkeeper lawsuit.

“I’m not trying to put blinders on,” Reznik said. “But in the end, the goal of a group like Coastkeeper is to make sure there is enough funding for infrastructure needs.”

The city still has a major infrastructure need looming that won’t be addressed by these rate increases: an upgrade to its main sewage treatment plant at Point Loma, which treats sewage slightly less than the federally required standard. The city currently has a waiver for that requirement and must reapply for that waiver within the next year. An upgrade has been estimated to cost at least $1 billion.

“The environmental community is very sensitive to the rate issue,” Gonzalez said, “and we look forward to working with the city to effect the necessary cleanups without sticking it to the ratepayers.”

Evan McLaughlin contributed to this report.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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