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San Diego’s environmental community signaled today that it is rethinking its withdrawal of support for a waiver at the city’s largest sewage treatment plant.

Currently, the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant releases 170 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean each day, but the plant doesn’t filter out the federally required amount of waste because it lacks the proper facilities. The waiver allows the plant to continue operating at such a level.

Environmentalists had decided not to support the city’s play for another waiver because of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ opposition to water reuse.

But on Monday, the San Diego City Council reinvigorated discussion on water reuse.

After the council’s action, the Committee on Natural Resources and Culture wanted to hear the reactions of the local environmentalists, who had agreed to support the waiver at the Point Loma plant if the mayor took considerable action toward developing a water recycling program.

Sanders had opposed the water reuse initiative because of costs and the “yuck factor,” his perception that San Diego residents would be unwilling to drink treated wastewater. Consequently, the environmental community has “taken off the table this agreement that we might forego our challenge of the waiver,” said Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney at Coast Law.

During the meeting, Gonzalez explained the context for the decision to withdraw support of the waiver. The two improvement projects, the development of a potable reuse project and upgrading the Point Loma facility, are inextricably linked, he said, but the mayor disagreed.

“Our communication lines have already broken down,” Gonzalez said.

However, when City Council members discussed and approved a one-year demonstration of the potable water reuse project, the environmental community was “thrown for a little bit of a loop.”

Now, the environmental community is reconsidering supporting the waiver because of City Council’s actions. But they don’t think they’ll support the mayor anytime soon.

“It’s a shame that the mayor has buried the sand on this critical water issue,” Gonzalez said. “I think if he was perhaps a little more calculated, he could have approached the environmental community to reach a resolution that would have us all moving forward in support of the waiver when it comes before council. Instead I think we will come out strongly en masse opposed.”

On the other hand, City Council believes the environmental community’s decision is not final.

“I think it’s important that the public understands the relationship between what we did this week and how that may affect the support of the environmental community as it relates to the waiver” said Councilwoman Donna Frye, who leads the committee.

“The idea is that we can avoid some sort of a train wreck and that we can figure out a way for this to work and for it to work for everybody in the city of San Diego in the most cost-effective way,” she said. “Hopefully this will be the beginning of that dialogue.”

BETHANY LEACH

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