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It’s hard to pin down how many billions of dollars the city is planning to spend on a new water recycling system, but it’s clear costs are rising – by billions of dollars.

Back in 2015, the city of San Diego expected it would get about a third of its drinking water from recycled sewage within 20 years and could do so for about $3 billion in construction costs.

Now, the city is looking to spend no less than $4.8 billion and perhaps as much as $9 billion on the project, according to city financial documents, including previously undisclosed internal estimates from the Public Utilities Department.

The project, known as Pure Water, is almost certain to be the most expensive public works project the city has ever undertaken.

Pure Water is happening in two different phrases. The first one, which is underway, is expected to cost about $1.5 billion, according to publicly available city financial estimates.

By early 2024, a water treatment plant near Miramar will produce about 30 million gallons of drinkable water each day from wastewater that would otherwise be dumped into the ocean. Wastewater is a polite name for sewage.

That’s already several hundred million dollars more than officials once expected, though the first stage of the project will generate twice as much water as once expected, meaning the rising costs make sense.

But costs for the second phase of the project, which will produce 53 million gallons of water each day, are quickly rising. That means, without producing a drop more water, costs for the whole project are escalating.

Internal documents show costs of the second phase of the project now range from $3.4 billion to $6.4 billion to $7.4 billion, meaning the whole project is now estimated to cost as much as $8.9 billion.

The city water department said it’s exploring a range of different ways to do the project and all of its various estimates are preliminary.

“These estimates are prepared at the conceptual level and are intended for relative comparison between possible alternatives and to provide a conceptual level of the costs,” city spokeswoman Katie Keach said in an email.

Pure Water is the city’s attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Not only is it supposed to provide a drought-proof source of water, but it’s supposed to help the city with another long-standing civic liability. For years, the city has promised to build Pure Water in order to avoid spending $2 billion to upgrade the Point Loma treatment plant, which dumps treated sewage into the ocean despite environmental regulations that discourage that. If Pure Water were only about treating sewage or only about getting a new water supply, it probably wouldn’t make financial sense.

At least, that used to be the consensus.

Now, the city appears to be studying a plan that would upgrade the Point Loma plant after all – meaning the city would end up paying for the very thing Pure Water was supposed to mean the city didn’t have to pay for. That plan is the most expensive of the various options.

It’s common for a major public works project to cost more than anticipated, but cost estimates for Pure Water have doubled or tripled over just a few years and even before shovels are in the ground.

The city has already seen cost of other projects rise. Construction bids for a controversial plan to overhaul part of Balboa Park have come in higher than earlier estimates.

City officials have always argued the Pure Water project is worth the price. Recycled water will help ensure the city can weather future droughts. San Diego currently depends on the Colorado River and the rivers of Northern California for the vast majority of its water. The rivers, each hundreds of miles away, have always had dry spells but those are going to become more finicky as the climate changes.

But the high costs also come at a time when the city’s water department has lost the public’s trust. Over the past two years, the department has sent out hundreds of inaccurate water bills, spent millions on a new “smart” water meter program that isn’t working as intended and repeatedly concealed problems from the public and the press.

In addition, the city has so far avoided trying to estimate how much these billions of dollars for Pure Water will affect customers’ bills, though water rates will inevitably rise. Following reporting last week by Voice of San Diego on the city’s unwillingness to do that math, city officials are working to estimate how much customer bills will rise specifically because of Pure Water. The city expects to make its estimates public in coming weeks, though officials caution any estimates are likely to change.

In other, more general estimates, city officials have projected water rates will increase by 36 percent over the next five years, some of which is because of Pure Water-related expenses. Rates have gone up by 29 percent in the past four years.

Already, San Diego customers pay some of the highest water rates in the country.

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

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