Monday, July 6, 2009 | A San Diego city councilwoman is having second thoughts about the city’s plan to turn recycled sewage into drinking water.

Councilwoman Sherri Lightner has asked the council to vote Tuesday to revoke a $438,000 contract it approved in March — a key part of the city’s examination of recycled sewage as a drinking-water supply.

Her push to revoke the contract demonstrates the tenuousness of the support for the potential water source by the new City Council, which added four new members in December. While Lightner has so far raised only technical issues and previously supported the concept, sewage recycling proponents worry that they may have lost their once solid majority on the council.

The city approved a multi-year, $11.8-million study in late 2007 to determine whether sewage can safely be purified, dumped in the San Vicente Reservoir and eventually consumed by humans. The council temporarily raised water rates last year to pay for the study — the first step before the city would consider whether to dump millions of gallons of purified sewage a day into the reservoir.

And in March, City Council, in a 5-3 vote, approved a $438,000 contract for a key part of the study — modeling how recycled sewage would mix in the reservoir and how long it would stay before being pulled out into the city’s drinking water pipes. The study is needed for the California Department of Health Services to grant regulatory approval.

Council’s vote on a sole-source contract for Flow Science Inc. should mirror its vote on the program as a whole. But Lightner, who voted to approve the contract, is now raising questions about it. She says she’s concerned about the way the company is modeling how long recycled sewage would stay in the reservoir.

But some worry that it might be more than that.

Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said she believes Lightner won’t consistently support sewage recycling. “There is a concern that Councilmember Lightner’s concerns are on the overall concept of indirect potable reuse rather than this specific contract,” Lutar said.

Lightner said she wants to delay the contract until she has assurances that the California Department of Health Services would find the study’s results adequate. San Diego would be the first entity in the state to receive approval to dump recycled sewage in an above-ground drinking water reservoir.

“The California Department of Health has no standards, the federal government has no standards,” Lightner said. “We’re operating in a strange place right now. It would be nice to have more focused direction.”

Jim Barrett, the city’s public utilities director, told Lightner in a June 25 memo that the company’s approach was scientifically valid. The state Department of Health Services is “pleased” with the model and the choice of Flow Science, Barrett wrote.

If Lightner had raised the same concerns in March, she likely would’ve been able to stall the project. Now, however, her effort won’t go far. Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who has opposed sewage recycling, doesn’t support Lightner’s request, giving sewage recycling proponents a key swing vote.

Faulconer “does not support reneging on a contract with a company doing business with the city,” said his spokesman, Tony Manolatos. “It sets a bad precedent and could affect future contracts.”

Lightner’s actions highlight the sensitivities still lingering about recycled sewage in arid San Diego, even as the region copes with a water shortage for the first time in two decades.

Orange County began pumping recycled sewage into its drinking water aquifers last year. That effort was widely endorsed by politicians and other local officials there, avoiding the stigma conjured in San Diego, where recycled sewage has been derided with the moniker “toilet-to-tap.”

Scientists say recycled sewage — purified largely in the same way that seawater is desalinated — is cleaner than conventional drinking water supplies. But the concept has been slow to take hold in San Diego.

Nonetheless, sewage recycling has had the support of a majority of council in recent years, with former Council President Scott Peters pushing it forward over the objections of Mayor Jerry Sanders. But Peters, along with fellow proponent Jim Madaffer, were termed out in December.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental group, said the departures of Peters and Madaffer raised “some worry about whether people coming in would have that commitment.”

Reznik said he hopes Lightner’s concerns are just technical questions. “Hopefully this isn’t a more fundamental issue,” he said. “If there is, then there’s a problem.”

Lightner said her concerns are limited in scope. She said she wants to ensure that public health and taxpayer dollars are protected as the study moves forward.

“If we’re going to study it,” she said, “we need to study it right.”

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