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One of the most prominent votes where all San Diego Council members (save Donna Frye) and Mayor Sanders took a hit from SCC was the city’s near-unanimous approval in November 2007 to move ahead with another application to the United States Environmental Protection Agency to exempt the city from secondary sewage treatment standards at its Point Loma Wastewater Treatment facility.

Discharging 180 million gallons of sewage to the ocean every day, San Diego is currently the largest sewage agency in the country with a waiver from secondary standards. In fact, San Diego is the last California wastewater discharger to continue to operate under a Section 301(h) waiver. The nation’s only other major waiver-holder, the City of Honolulu, was denied its most recent waiver application in February.

The EPA and the San Diego Water Board, which held a joint hearing on the waiver application in January 2009, are expected to approve the city’s application in 2009, though EPA officials have already indicated that this will be the city’s final waiver.

There is little doubt that upgrading Point Loma will be expensive, likely near $1B in costs. It is also almost certain that San Diego will be forced to come into compliance with federal standards in the near future. One of the most distressing aspects of the city’s 2007 vote to move ahead with the waiver application was the lack of any real discussion, planning or forethought as to how the city would eventually come into compliance with the Clean Water Act in a way that is protective of our environment while also ensuring the financial safety of the city and its residents.

Luckily, the city and local environmental groups were able to make lemonade out of lemons in January of this year with a controversial agreement requiring the city to undertake a comprehensive assessment of how it can decrease the total discharge of sewage from Pt. Loma by reclaiming and reusing water for potable (drinking) and non-drinking (irrigation, industrial) uses. Water reclamation offers an opportunity to reduce our environmental footprint on the ocean by decreasing sewage discharges into the ocean, reduce the cost of upgrading Pt. Loma to secondary standards as less sewage treatment will be needed, and address perhaps San Diego’s greatest need — a cost-effective strategy to enhance local water supplies.

This agreement was formally signed by Coastkeeper and Surfrider, supported by Sierra Club and the San Diego Audubon Society, and approved by Mayor Sanders, City Attorney Goldsmith and the City Council by a 6-1 vote. But it was not without detractors. While the environmental groups think it is a visionary step toward addressing two chronic problems in the region – ocean health and water supply — the lone Council member holdout, Carl DeMaio, called the agreement extortion. Some activists from San Luis Obispo and Orange County who challenged sewage waivers in those areas, referred to the San Diego environmental community as ‘sell-outs’ (one of the more printable terms used). For a more detailed history of the local environmental community’s efforts on the Point Loma sewage waiver and water reclamation, click here.

— COLIN PARENT

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