Cities and water districts in East County, North County and the South Bay have lined up to oppose the city of San Diego’s ambitious plans to turn sewage into drinkable water.

For years, San Diego has aimed to make recycled water drinkable and widespread.

The idea used to face opposition from the public, who thought it was yucky. Two years ago, the drought and changes in public opinion seemed to remove any obstacles, so the city decided it could double the size of the three-part project’s first phrase.

Now the project is branded Pure Water, and the city hopes to produce 30 million gallons per day of recycled water by 2022. But the drought made sewage harder to come by and more valuable. As a result, costs for the project have risen.

The $1 billion project is a top priority for Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Gov. Jerry Brown also put Pure Water on a list of projects that he hopes the Trump administration will help pay for.

But the mayors of Coronado and Chula Vista, city council members in Poway and Lemon Grove, and officials from water agencies in San Diego’s eastern and southern suburbs are all trying to rein in the project.

They have written letters to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to argue for the original, smaller version of the project, which would have produced just 15 million gallons per day of water in coming years.

Those cities – and every city from Imperial Beach to Alpine – send their sewage to the city for treatment. So, when San Diego upgrades its sewage infrastructure, customers in other cities pay more. The other cities say San Diego hasn’t told them exactly what the project will cost their ratepayers. That’s, in part, because San Diego doesn’t know.

The conflict has been brewing since the fall, when the Metro Joint Powers Authority – the group of cities that use San Diego’s sewer system – began to question San Diego’s water department about the larger version of the project. Since then, San Diego has faced sharper criticism.

Jim Peasley, the chairman of the group, said he’s not sure San Diego’s big plan is in the best interest of ratepayers.

“They just don’t want to do what is most cost-effective for the ratepayers, that’s the bottom line,” he said.

San Diego has a legal commitment to environmentalists and state and federal regulators to recycle 83 million gallons per day of water by 2035, which would be a third of the city’s water supply. The original plan for Pure Water was to recycle 15 million gallons per day by 2023, another 15 million gallons by 2027 and the final 53 million gallons by the end of 2035. The total costs over time would be about $3 billion.

San Diego justifies its determination to expand the first phase in an odd way. Because of the drought, people are using less water, which means there’s less wastewater in the sewer system. So there’s not enough sewage in one place to recycle into 15 million gallons of drinkable water, according to San Diego officials.

So, San Diego says it needs to build more infrastructure than expected to gather up enough sewage from across its sprawling sewer system to send to a single location for treatment. It wants to build a new pump station in Mission Valley and an 11-mile pipeline to send the sewage to a soon-to-be constructed water recycling plant along Interstate 805 in the northern part of the city.

Not only is that more expensive than expected, but San Diego now believes it makes more sense to do 30 million gallons at once, to take advantage of economies of scale, rather than do two separate 15 million gallon projects five years apart. That’s more expensive in the short term, though supposed to save money in the long run.

“Because we had to do that anyways, then that became the option that made the most sense,” said Halla Razak, the head of San Diego’s public utilities department.

Not everyone believes this.

“That’s a point of contention, whether that’s true or not,” Peasley said. “The city claims it is.”

Lemon Grove has hired its own engineering firm to check San Diego’s math, though that analysis is still in its early stages.

Peasley and others seem to believe that San Diego’s engineers put a thumb on the scale to justify the larger version of the project. Why that would be is still unclear.

Pure Water is ultimately an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. The city operates an outdated sewage treatment plant at Point Loma, which dumps somewhat treated sewer water into the ocean. For years, the city has promised to build Pure Water in order to avoid spending $2 billion to upgrade the Point Loma plant.

If it were only about treating sewage or only about getting a new water supply, Pure Water probably wouldn’t make financial sense.

“It’s an expensive source of water, it’s an expensive way to treat water, but the fact that it’s doing both makes it affordable,” said Charles Modica, a staffer for San Diego’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst.

Right now, a waiver from state and federal environmental regulators allows San Diego to avoid upgrading Point Loma. The latest version of that waiver is pending with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. That new document would mandate that the city produce 30 million gallons per day of recycled water by 2022, instead of the original 15 million gallons by 2023. The neighboring cities are hoping to get the regional board to keep the goal at 15 million gallons.

Part of the problem is that such waivers are only temporary. The only way to be certain that San Diego can avoid upgrading Point Loma is getting Congress to change the Clean Water Act. The act generally prohibits sewage treatment plants from dumping all but the most highly treated water into the ocean; right now, San Diego’s water is not as highly treated as the act requires.

Until the Clean Water Act is amended to spare San Diego, neighboring cities want to avoid as much cost as possible, because even if San Diego 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 if the state or federal government decided to stop granting waivers. That is a nightmare scenario for politicians and bureaucrats who have said one expensive project will negate the need for the other.

Even if the city’s engineering is correct about making Pure Water bigger now, there’s concern that $1 billion is a lot of cost at once.

“Ultimately, even though there’s some engineering efficiency, you’re still incurring a lot of costs up front sooner to all the ratepayer,” said Al Lau, the engineering director at Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which serves Alpine, El Cajon, Lakeside and Santee.

Padre Dam is working on its own recycled water project, which would provide about 30 percent of the drinking water used in East County. But it’s worried about paying for that project because of the uncertainty about the costs from Pure Water and Point Loma.

Some have suggested that Padre Dam’s project should be used to help meet San Diego’s 83 million gallon recycled water target so that Pure Water can be smaller. Razak said San Diego could eventually save money that way but she doesn’t want to count on Padre Dam’s project happening in the short term.

In the meantime, San Diego has expressed concern about Padre Dam’s project taking even more sewage out of the regional sewer system. In a recent letter to Padre Dam, water officials from San Diego’s public utilities department fretted that the East County project would “deprive the city of flows which it otherwise could have used for its own recycled water projects.”

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

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