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San Diego Coastkeeper is willing to offer a REWARD (ok, a free one-year Shore Crab membership to anyone who can offer up a reason for Mayor Sanders’ opposition to water recycling for potable uses that actually makes sense (yes, there had to be a catch).  It’s been more than a year since I met with Mayor Sanders and his staff on this issue, and I’m still scratching my head over why, exactly, he has so adamantly opposed a project that could create up to 16 million gallons a day of drought proof, municipally-owned drinking water for the City of San Diego.

For a quick background, in October, the City Council voted 5-2 to implement a pilot project (Indirect Portable Re-use) to test using highly treated sewage water to augment the San Vicente Reservoir, as recommended in the City’s 2005 Water Reuse Study.

After the Mayor vetoed this project, the Council for the first time under the ‘strong Mayor’ form of government overrode his veto by a 5-3 vote in December. This should have resulted in the City moving ahead with a one million gallon-per-day pilot project that could be expanded to a full scale reservoir augmentation project should the City, California Department of Public Health and other agencies deem it safe. Unfortunately, it seems as though the Mayor has issued an unofficial ‘wallet veto,’ and this project appears stalled despite the approval and override by the City Council (wait, this isn’t how things are supposed to happen under ‘strong Mayor’, is it?).  So let’s quickly examine the Mayor’s stated concerns:

Public Health — Should we be using highly treated wastewater as a drinking water source?  That is a good question, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. First, let’s remember that what the Council approved is a small-scale pilot project that will help us determine whether a full-scale project is safe. Let’s also not forget that the Colorado River, where we get nearly half our water currently, is hardly pristine. In fact, there are more than 400 million gallons of sewage discharges from over 225 separate sewage agencies in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada (remember, ‘what happens in Vegas’ actually ends up in San Diego’s water supply), and another 1.5 billion gallons of industrial discharges into the Colorado before water gets to us. Finally, we should also recognize that indirect potable use (admittedly, more frequently groundwater injection rather than reservoir augmentation) has been done successfully in cities across the country and across the globe, in some instances for more than thirty years.

Public perception n The Mayor likes to point out that the public is adamantly opposed to ‘toilet-to-tap’, and nothing can be done about this, so he is simply representing their will. Actually, quite the opposite is true.  While two separate surveys have concluded that a majority of the public does not support indirect potable reuse at first blush, there is a lot of fluidity in these numbers. A Competitive Edge poll found 44 percent of San Diegans support IPR, 50 percent oppose (not great, but hardly overwhelming). However, once people are given more information about the standards that must be met and where our current water comes from, more than half those opposed were willing to reconsider their position (which seems to indicate a tremendous opportunity for the Mayor to lead and educate the public about this issue). In fact, as was pointed at a recent Council workshop on this issue by a representative from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (hardly a group of ‘enviro-whackos’), despite all this fear of an outpouring of public outrage, not a single person has spoken against the pilot project at any of the last several hearings. That made me think about my history working on this issue and at more than a dozen hearings over the past five years, the only people I recall speaking against this project are Bruce Henderson and Howard Wayne, two former elected officials who made political hay over toilet-to-tap in the 1990s. Hardly the kind of outpouring that will lead to political ‘tar-and-feathering’ for politicians who support IPR. Lastly, let us note that rarely have we seen such a broad-based coalition in support of IPR, which not only includes Coastkeeper and a half-dozen environmental groups, but also the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, San Diego Industrial Environmental Association, BIOCOMM, and over a dozen water districts and municipalities.  

Cost— Even more perplexing are the Mayor’s claims that IPR is the least cost-effective way to produce more water supplies. This is simply not the case. In fact, the Mayor has supported water recycling for irrigation and other non-potable uses, which is extremely costly as expensive pipes have to built to send water to relatively small customers, as opposed to building one large pipe to the San Vicente Reservoir. Mayor Sanders has seemingly indicated that he would be willing to spend the same $200 million-$280 million that it would take to create up to 16 million gallons per day of potable water at San Vicente to instead build purple pipe that could use 2-3 million gallons per day for non-potable uses. Hardly the stuff of fiscal prudence. The Water Re-use study concluded that it would require 70 cents more per water bill per month for non-potable water reuse compared with IPR, and still reuse less water. IPR also compares very favorably with the CDP, which the Mayor has supported: $800-$900 per acre-foot for IPR compared with $1,100-$1,500 per acre-foot for desalination. The City claims it cannot find $10 million to implement the pilot project, yet my conversations with elected officials, grant-making organizations and others have suggested such money is out there for projects that will create local water supplies. So why aren’t we as a City looking for this money so ratepayers won’t have to pick up the tab? 

Now, it has been suggested by some that the Mayor’s posturing is simple politics — he is against IPR either because City Attorney Mike Aguirre is for it (and we know how well they get along), or because of Sanders’ relationship with Poseidon Resources, which could view IPR as competition. It is true there are well-documented close connections between the Mayor and Poseidon, ranging from political contributions to sharing a PR/political consultant, Tom Shepard. Coincidentally, Maloni left Tom Shepard’s firm (where Poseidon was his client) in April to work as a Vice President for Poseidon.  

Now I would hate to think that Mayor Sanders would place back-room politics over what is best for San Diegans, so I will choose to ignore these last rationales. But I am still waiting for an explanation that makes sense of his being a roadblock to IPR in San Diego.  And remember, a free Coastkeeper membership could be on the line! 

—BRUCE REZNIK

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