The North City Pure Water Facility / Photo by Megan Wood

In its 25-year plan ensuring the San Diego region has enough water to go around, the county’s largest water provider didn’t appear to take the region’s biggest water recycling project to date very seriously, at least at first.

Emails between the San Diego County Water Authority staff and city of San Diego officials show the city had to argue for the second and biggest phase of its Pure Water program to be considered a realistic future source of drinking water. That surprised San Diego, which is the Water Authority’s biggest customer and is legally required to construct its wastewater recycling project.

“We definitely had to make an effort for it to be considered a verifiable project” by the Water Authority, said Shauna Lorance, director of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department.

Local water agencies from across the region formed the Water Authority in 1944 to import water into the county from rivers hundreds of miles away. As water grows more expensive to transport and treat the old way, Southern California cities are trying to add more local water sources. San Diego’s doing that by building the Pure Water project, a multibillion-dollar system that will purify wastewater well enough for drinking.

But when local water agencies start to generate their own water, that leaves less for the Water Authority to sell. Right now, there’s a disagreement over what the future holds for water demand and sales in the region. Local agencies say their residents are habitually using less water overall after the last major drought, so we should plan to have less money coming in as a region. Yet the Water Authority’s own forecasts paint a different picture, showing an increased water demand decades into the future, which befuddled local agencies.

Lorance said her staff recently did a very deep and detailed dive into water use data, which showed residents used 5 to 10 percent less than the Water Authority predicted. It didn’t take a deep investigation, though, to discover the Water Authority didn’t account for 53 million gallons a day less in water sales once Pure Water comes fully online in 2035.

“That’s a large amount of water,” Lorance said. “If the County Water Authority does long-term planning and anticipates (instead) to be selling that water to the city, they’d significantly overestimate the amount of water they’d sell.”

The Water Authority has to get its supply and demand numbers as close to right as possible so it knows how much money will be coming in from water sales. The revenue from water sales supports an immense amount of aging water infrastructure for which the Water Authority owes $1.77 billion in principal debt.

If it sells less than budgeted, ratepayers could theoretically be on the hook to foot the bill.

Though the city celebrates Pure Water as a successful sewage-to-drinking water story, it’s the product of a tumultuous battle the city’s had with its sewage since the 1930s. The project is part of a legal compromise San Diego has with the federal government to limit the amount of undertreated sewage its Point Loma wastewater facility dumps into the ocean, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

“Pure Water is not an optional project … (Water Authority) didn’t want to acknowledge it,” said Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, who served on the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board when San Diego was in litigation over its Point Loma plant.

A spokesman for the agency said the Water Authority “defers to the member agencies on the status of their projects.”

“We moved it to verifiable,” a category the Water Authority uses to count projects toward future water supply in drought planning, “based on the city’s written request,” wrote Mike Lee, the Water Authority spokesman in a Feb. 10 email in response to questions from Voice of San Diego.

But more emails show Water Authority staff resisted the city’s initial request to plan for the second phase of the project, and instead asked for more justification.

“To be verifiable, there have to be signs of implementation,” wrote Alexi Schnell, a water resources specialist at the Water Authority, in a Dec. 10 email. “Indicators could be that construction has started or is eminent, the (California Environmental Quality Act) process is complete, permits were issued and construction contracts signed.”
The city wrote back on Jan. 27, arguing that the state doesn’t prescribe how water agencies should define supplies, so the Water Authority should plan for the entirety of Pure Water coming online indefinitely because the city is too.

“The city has begun construction for Phase I and is legally required to complete Phase 2,” wrote Ally Berenter, senior manager of external affairs and water policy for Mayor Todd Gloria’s office.

The Water Authority’s general manager eventually agreed.

“After review of available documentation provided to the city … the Water Authority agrees Phase 2 (of Pure Water) meets the level of certainty required to move it to the verifiable category in our plan,” read a Feb. 4 email between Water Authority’s General Manager Sandy Kerl and Lorance.

How Pure Water will be detailed in the Water Authority’s long-range, 25-year planning document called the Urban Water Management Plan is unclear. The Water Authority declined to provide a copy in advance of the public meeting on Feb. 25.

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