Inside of the North City Pure Water Facility / Photo by Megan Wood

San Diego water officials have looked at turning sewage into drinking water for nearly 40 years. The first stab at recycling wastewater involved a series of ponds in Mission Valley that grew hyacinths, long-rooted plants that gobble up sewage and leave relatively clean water behind.

Now, after years of scientific progress, regulatory wrangling, political ups and downs, and searching for the money, the city is getting ready to put shovels in the ground and get to work on a multi-part, multibillion-dollar project that will eventually provide a third of the city’s drinking water.

There have been innumerable hurdles along the way – in the court of public opinion, and in actual court.

The latest was a dispute among contractors, labor unions and the city.

Last week, state lawmakers approved a bill meant to end the dispute and get the recycling project, now known as Pure Water, back on track.

The project is sold as a major leap for the region’s water supply. Right now, San Diego is largely dependent on a tiny bit of rain that falls locally, a plant in Carlsbad that makes some ocean water drinkable and a lot of water imported from hundreds of miles away. That imported water is less and less dependable, thanks to climate change, overuse or stricter environmental regulations.

But the recycling project is perhaps possible only because of compromises made after years of legal wrangling over sewage which, unlike drinkable water, the city has often had too much of.

San Diego has long struggled to deal with its sewage problems. For years, the city intentionally dumped untreated sewage into San Diego Bay, hoping the tides would take it away. That theory didn’t work out so well. In the 1930s, there was so much sewage off the coast that it was corroding the hulls of Navy ships and driving away tourists.

In 1963, the city and several neighboring cities opened the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, which solved some problems but created others.

By the 1970s, Congress had passed the Clean Water Act and wanted water coming out of wastewater treatment plants to be cleaned up in two different ways. The Point Loma plant only cleaned sewage one way. But, the city argued, this time the tides actually were taking the sewage away.

Officials argued the Point Loma facility shouldn’t be held to the same standard as one in, say, Saint Louis, which dumps water not into a massive ocean but into the Mississippi River. City officials also thought they could prove the plant’s discharge wasn’t causing harm to the ocean. There’s an old saying for this in the water quality world: The solution to pollution is dilution.

The Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Then-Mayor Pete Wilson also didn’t want to spend a bunch of money improving the plant if it wasn’t causing harm. Estimates to upgrade plant hover at $1 to $2 billion and could take up to take decade.

“So he and a bunch of other mayors who were similarly situated go to Congress and say, look, we got no truck with the Clean Water Act, but one-size-fits-all doesn’t make it for us San Diego and Anchorage, Alaska, and how about Honolulu, Hawaii – 4,000 miles into the Pacific,” said Ted Bromfield, a former deputy city attorney who represented the city. “Congress says, you know, we get it.”

So the federal government began to allow waivers to the Clean Water Act’s requirements. San Diego, for about a decade, applied for and received those waivers, sparing itself a major upgrade to its still relatively new treatment plant.

Then, the mid-1980s, the city didn’t reapply in time for a waiver, setting off years of litigation.

At that point, the city began offering to do something else instead of upgrading Point Loma. What if, instead of trying to clean up water that was going into the Pacific, it tried to reduce the amount of water being dumped there in the first place?

At first, this focused on recycling water only so it could be used for irrigation and certain industrial uses – not for drinking. That spawned a generation of “purple pipe” systems, named for the color of the separate pipe system that carries recycled water that is OK for irrigation and industry but definitely not drinking.

But the city kept talking about the possibility of making wastewater drinkable. Orange County now does it, though it filters water through the ground, something the geology in San Diego doesn’t easily allow.

One plan ran into fierce opposition from a few local politicians who helped label the recycling effort “toilet to tap.” They borrowed the term from operatives who worked for Miller Brewing in the early-1990s. Miller was concerned that a water recycling project in the suburbs of Los Angeles would allow its competitors to label its water “toilet water.” The brewer’s operatives then set in motion a public relations campaign that may have helped reduce Southern California’s water supply reliability for a generation.

There have been various attempts to replace the phrase “toilet to tap” with something else. The former head of the San Diego water department, Halla Razak, once suggested “toilet, treatment, treatment, treatment, reservoir, treatment, treatment, tap” might work.

For now, though, the term Pure Water seems to be sticking.

Ironically, Stone Brewing would later win a public relations award for a beer it brewed using water from the city’s Pure Water test facility.

The rebound in recycled water’s fortune came during the height of the California drought and under the leadership of Mayor Kevin Faulconer who, unlike some of his predecessors, was comfortable with the idea of recycled water. One of his predecessors, Jerry Sanders, once said, “Nooooo” and laughed nervously when asked to drink some of the highly treated water in 2011. (Sanders eventually came around to the project, after pressure from local business leaders, the New York Times reported in 2012.)

Then-City Councilman David Alvarez inspects a glass of recycled wastewater at a 2011 event. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

But the project doesn’t exist for those reasons alone. It’s part of a compromise among environmentalists, the city and the federal government, which is still unhappy with Point Loma.

Credit for pushing water recycling from scientifically possible to politically palatable goes to Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney who has long been at odds with the city over how it handles sewage.

He swears the idea came to him while sitting on his surfboard and thinking about the concept of stranded assets. Gonzalez had been pushing the city to do more with its purple pipe water. The city had built treatment plants to make the water but wasn’t selling all of it, meaning the water was going to waste. Expanding that parallel system of pipes to connect to more customers would be costly, especially if customers didn’t want it to begin with. There was also the prospect of spending lots to upgrade Point Loma as studies were showing no evidence of significant harm to the ocean, though environmentalists did have some questions about those studies.

Gonzalez decided to use the legal leverage he had to push for a recycling project to make wastewater drinkable.

“The city staff said you’re crazy, we’d love to but we don’t have the political will for it,” he said.

But a deal, in which Gonzalez and other environmentalists stopped pushing for an upgrade to Point Loma, set up a series of studies that would eventually result in Pure Water.

The Clean Water Act still hangs over the city, though. If it doesn’t quickly get to work on Pure Water, it could break the deal and end up having to upgrade Point Loma after all.

That’s definitely not what the city wants to do. And it doesn’t seem like it’s something the Environmental Protection Agency wants to see happen either, as long as Pure Water happens.

Last week, the federal agency rolled out a national water reuse plan. David Ross, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the office of water, announced the plan in San Diego, where he started his career working for the city of San Diego on water recycling nearly 30 years ago.

“Fortunately for San Diego, they have spent so much energy and money and investment taking a look at this, and their system is built with redundancy,” Ross said. “They probably have over-engineered this.”

He was referring to the city’s plan to take water from the recycling plant, which would be fit for drinking, then dumping that into a lake to mix with other water supplies, like the water imported from far away. Then, the water will be taken out of the lake and treated again before it’s sent to anyone’s taps.

Even if that adds cost, it may be necessary to continue to calm the public and to protect against problems, which could set back water recycling for another generation, just as climate change makes it arguably more necessary than ever.

Peter MacLaggan has been around to see it all. He worked the early studies of the hyacinths, and he was the first and only person to hold the title of water reclamation director at the San Diego County Water Authority. He eventually went to Poseidon Resources, the private company that built the Carlsbad desalination plant.

The plant ended up being more politically palatable – for Sanders and others – than recycled water, following the “toilet to tap” controversy. In a 2009 letter, Gonzalez even blamed the company for helping to stall recycling.

“Our perspective on this was we need all of these solutions,” MacLaggan said. “I think it’s fantastic, it’s long overdue. Our water supply challenges aren’t going to go away and this is an opportunity to take half the water we used in our homes and businesses to put it to a second, third, fourth use, and that’s a great thing for San Diego County.”

Ry Rivard

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

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