The reverse osmosis barriers inside the North City Pure Water Facility / File photo by Megan Wood

Sewage is now a commodity, a drinking water resource in the world of California drought, and the city of San Diego and a bloc of eastern San Diego County water agencies have been fighting over it

Both parties will be recycling wastewater into drinking water but they need to cut a deal with each other to make that happen and it’s gotten fairly complicated, as Voice of San Diego’s MacKenzie Elmer previously reported.

East County needs a critical set of pumps owned by the city of San Diego for its project;  the city wants East County to ship the waste from its wastewater recycling process to a treatment plant near the ocean through a new pipeline. That deal went awry and East County set an eminent domain process in motion to wrench the pumps free from San Diego’s grasp. 

Now there’s a proposal on the table that could get both what they want, but it could require getting support, and dollars, from other local agencies. 

In an interview this week, Kyle Swanson, Padre Dam Municipal Water District’s new general manager, said there is positive progress toward a new deal. That deal, still in its infancy, would likely center on a handful of agreements. 

San Diego would agree to sell the East Mission Gorge Pump Station and a connecting water main to East County, which would eventually house that special pipeline the city says East County needs to prevent what’s leftover from its wastewater treatment from entering the city’s wastewater system. That special pipeline is called the “brine line” and it’s been a central sticking point in the battle between the two parties. 

Originally, under a signed agreement with East County, the city of San Diego committed to paying for it at a $35 million price tag. But recently, San Diego announced, that actually, it couldn’t pay for it due to a legal technicality, arguing the city couldn’t ask its ratepayers to foot the full bill because the pipeline wouldn’t directly benefit them – a property of Proposition 218. 

One proposal on the table would be to dub that a regional brine line by splitting the cost between the city, East County and perhaps what’s known as the Metro JPA, a group of 13 total agencies that share San Diego’s wastewater system. 

Everybody pays for it, and then it belongs to everybody, and then everybody’s happy, right? Maybe not. Asking those agencies to help pay for that brine line could prove to be another snag that slows down the deal because the Metro JPA is already wary of becoming saddled with more costs as East County rolls its wastewater off the regional system to build its recycling plant. Each of those agencies would likely have to sign-off on the deal.

Jay Goldstone, interim chief operations officer at the city of San Diego, said the cost to the Metro JPA for the brine line would likely be minimal with the city picking up the majority of the tab. 

Swanson said East County needs that pump station by October so it can be turned over to a team designing the project. Further delays could mean costs rise on the $950 million project. 

The warring parties expect to have a draft of their new agreement by the end of the month. 

“I’m optimistic we’ll reach an agreement with East County and put this behind us,” Goldstone said. 

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