Friday, Dec. 5, 2008 | San Diego caught a break from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday when the federal agency agreed to give the city a five-year waiver of Clean Water Act standards at the city’s largest sewage treatment plant in Point Loma.

The decision will allow the city to continue discharging 170 million gallons of sewage into the Pacific Ocean each day without removing a federally required amount of crud. It’s good for five years. In the short-term, the waiver gives the city a $1.5 billion break. The city expects it would cost that much to upgrade the treatment plant, which sits on the western bluffs near Cabrillo National Monument and has little room to expand.

But in the longer-term, the city faces increasing pressure from the federal government and local environmental groups to overhaul its sewage treatment infrastructure. San Diego is the last major city in California to hold a Clean Water Act waiver.

Alexis Strauss, water division director in the EPA’s San Francisco office, said she has urged the city to develop plans to take pressure off the Point Loma treatment plant and find other uses for the city’s sewage.

Water’s value in California is undergoing a paradigm shift, Strauss said. With water growing increasingly scarce and expensive, it now makes less sense to pump water hundreds of miles to the city, she said, have residents use it once and then flush it into the Pacific Ocean.

Strauss said as the city looks to its next waiver application in five years, it ought to be developing plans for reusing sewage. The city should not wait until “the last minute,” she said.

“Nobody’s variance is assured,” Strauss said. “It puts the city in a precarious position every five years. It’s such a risk to run and I’d rather the city were on a more assured basis.”

That pressure gives San Diego’s environmental community the leverage it needs to negotiate potential agreements with the city — leverage that might otherwise be lacking. San Diego Coastkeeper has signaled that it would sue the city over the waiver. That threat of litigation earned it a seat at the city’s negotiating table. But the environmental group’s executive director, Bruce Reznik, also admits that upgrading Point Loma would not be best way to spend the city’s money.

In effect, the group has threatened to sue the city to compel it to spend money in a way the group admits wouldn’t be best.

But the EPA’s pressure and suggestion that the city and local environmentalists work together appears to be working. Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has met once with Reznik and environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, said he was open to discussing the future of the city’s sewage-treatment infrastructure.

“I think that’s a reasonable approach,” Sanders said. “We need to plan much further out than a five-year horizon on water and wastewater.”

The city is required to have long-term water plans; it does not have a similar requirement for its sewage. As the city has repeatedly sought waivers at Point Loma, it has scuffled with environmentalists each time. That could be changing.

While Point Loma isn’t environmentalists’ highest priority, they have strongly advocated for recycling sewage as a drinking water source — a way to decrease discharges into the ocean and increase water supplies.

Sanders said he was willing to discuss all options for reusing sewage — a way to keep it out of the ocean — including recycling it as a drinking water source, something he has long opposed. While he said he believed the technology was too expensive and unproven, he said he was “willing to look at it” if a study recently funded by the City Council concludes it is safe for human consumption.

A better option, Sanders said, may be a decentralized sewage treatment system that would more easily make recycled sewage available for irrigation. The city has an underused system for reclaiming sewage for irrigation; it has two large plants but not the piping necessary to distribute the water they could produce.

Strauss said the city would be wise to agree with environmentalists about how to move forward on a wastewater plan before the waiver winds through the approval process. It needs approval from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Coastal Commission.

Reznik said he hoped such an agreement would be reached. “We would much rather be walking hand-in-hand with the city with a plan that addresses this in a long-term fashion,” he said.

Sanders said such an agreement could establish some type of ad hoc committee to develop a wastewater plan. “It’s not just going to be Bruce and Marco,” Sanders said. “It’s going to be people from different expertises.”

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