San Diego’s recycled water project is facing roadblocks at a crucial time, partly thanks to an unusual problem: the city is running short on sewage.

San Diego is aiming to make reused sewer water drinkable and widespread within a matter of years. The project is branded Pure Water.

The city operates an outdated sewage treatment plant at Point Loma. For years, the city has avoided spending $2 billion to upgrade the plant by promising to build Pure Water.

Within a matter of weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue a tentative waiver that will allow the city to avoid upgrading Point Loma for another five years, on the condition that Pure Water is still on track to begin construction in the next few years.

And on Tuesday, the San Diego City Council will be asked to approve millions of dollars in contacts with engineering firms to begin the next step of design work for Pure Water.

But officials in other cities are throwing a wrench into the city’s plans.

Nine other San Diego County cities and two suburban water agencies from the South Bay and East County send their sewage into the city of San Diego for treatment. When the city of San Diego spends money to upgrade its sewer system, customers from Imperial Beach to Alpine end up paying a third of the costs.

The first part of the multi-part Pure Water project was supposed to cost almost nothing for the other cities.

But San Diego has run into an odd complication that is driving up costs: There isn’t enough sewage – at least in the right place. Because of the drought, everybody is using less water, which means there’s less wastewater in parts of the sewer system.

Now, it may need to spend over $400 million to collect and redirect sewage to a plant in the northern part of the city, where the water can be purified into drinking water.

This expense is causing consternation among other cities that will need to pick up a third of that tab.

On Thursday, the Metro Joint Powers Authority – the group of cities that use San Diego’s sewer system – voted against the city’s plans to produce 30 million gallons of recycled drinking water by 2021. They object to the increased costs and that the project is moving ahead faster than expected.

The other cities suggest that even if the city spends the $3 billion it will take to finish the Pure Water project, it could still be forced to spend $2 billion to upgrade Point Loma. That is a nightmare scenario for politicians and bureaucrats who have said one expensive project will negate the need for the other.

The other cities are walking a fine line between fighting over their share of the project’s cost and standing in the way of Pure Water entirely.

“It’s not a matter of whether Pure Water has value or not, it’s a matter of who pays for it,” said Jerry Jones, a Lemon Grove city councilman who is also a member of the Metro JPA.

But it’s unclear how the other cities can claim to support a project they are trying to delay and avoid paying for. Halla Razak, the head of the city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department, called the group’s vote unfortunate and risky.

“Really? A week before getting the draft permit you want to sit down and renegotiate what we’ve been working on for the last three years?” she said, referring to the EPA waiver.

There may not be much the other cities can do to stop Pure Water, because San Diego runs the sewer system on its own. The other cities just pay to use it.

If the other cities don’t want to use it, they’d have to build their own sewage systems and treatment plants – and that’s expensive. They are basically stuck paying whatever the city asks them too. That gives them little formal leverage over Pure Water’s fate, but it does not prevent them from causing a political ruckus over a project that has already been delayed by politics. Such a fuss could push the city to change how it pays for Pure Water. Right now, the city plans to use a combination of sewer fees and drinking water fees, which are separate on people’s bills. Other cities are trying to push San Diego to bill its own water customers more, which would spare sewer customers in other cities.

Jones and others now suggest that the city of San Diego’s customers should bear the entire burden for Pure Water, at least for the time being.

“We would be sued in 20 seconds flat,” Razak told Jones during a meeting last week when he suggested that.

“You might now,” Jones replied.

Even without a lawsuit, other cities could upend a legal balancing act San Diego has with federal regulators and local environmental groups over Point Loma.

The water from the plant is dumped into the ocean. Because that water is dirtier than what’s allowed under the Clean Water Act, the city has faced pressure from environmentalists and regulators to spend $2 billion to upgrade the plant to make the water cleaner.

The city has been depending on a series of five-year waivers from the EPA to avoid doing that. But that waiver is not a given and it depends on the city keeping its end of the bargain and building Pure Water.

Likewise, the environmental groups could file a lawsuit against the city to force it to upgrade the plant.

In 2014, the city signed a deal with environmentalists: Instead of upgrading the Point Loma plant, it would start a recycled water project. That bought the city time.

Even though Pure Water will also cost a few billion dollars, it kills two birds with one stone by reducing the amount of dirty water dumped in the Pacific and providing a new water source to combat the drought and future droughts.

But the deal relies on one big unknown. For the city to have assurances that it won’t have to upgrade Point Loma, Congress needs to amend the Clean Water Act.

So far, that hasn’t happened.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the magic wand to control Washington, D.C.,” Razak said.

Without congressional action, Jones worries everyone might spend a lot of money on Pure Water and still end up being forced to upgrade the Point Loma plant. That would mean paying for two multibillion-dollar projects instead of just one.

Jones wants San Diego to wait to start construction of Pure Water until Congress acts and assures everyone Point Loma will never have to be upgraded. The city wants to start now. If it waits too long, it worries it will be breaking its deal with the environmentalists, which would open it up to a lawsuit.

Jones said if the city wants to start construction before Congress acts, the city should pay all the expenses on its own and only pass along costs to other cities if Congress eventually acts.

Some members of the Joint Powers Authority said the city should try to reopen negotiations with environmental groups.

That may not fly.

“We’re not interested in renegotiating and we want to see these timelines accelerated,” said Matt O’Malley, an attorney for San Diego Coastkeeper.

He said the sewer system that currently dumps water into the ocean during a historic drought rather than recycling it is a waste of California’s waters.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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