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Drought Continues As San Diego Looks At Reusable Water

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March 25, 2014 1:17 p.m.


Halla Razak, Department Director of San Diego Public Utilities Department

Matt O'Malley, San Diego Coastkeeper

Shawn Dewane, Board President, Orange County Water District

Related Story: Drought Continues As San Diego Looks At Reusable Water


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story in Midday Edition, San Diego standing at a crossroads but what to do with wastewater. That is the message members of the San Diego city Council we hear from the public utilities department this week, the test project to recycle wastewater a process once derisively called toilet to tap, it's now called pure water San Diego. City water officials say that the tests have been if success and now the project is ready to be fully developed as a new source of water for San Diego. It's also being presented as a less costly alternative to building a secondary sewage treatment facility at point Loma. The weather that federal government will agree is an open question. But like to introduce my guests holographic Matt O'Malley and Sean Dewane. Welcome to the program. This water purification idea has had a checkered history but since 2007 the North city and direct potable reuse project has been testing this idea, telesales measure the success of this project.

HALLA RAZAK: Thank you Maureen, first on to the name of toilet to tap, I really want to address that had on, it's really not an accurate description of what we're talking about here, the water that we have been recycling in San Diego for about twenty years, part of what we've been doing in North city reclamation plants is treating the water to a very high standard and then using it for irrigation and golf courses and different businesses run the city. It's been a very successful project that we have had and we want to take the next step, this water will then go through three very specific. Edition processes. One micro main filtration followed by reverse osmosis, the same technology used by used for desalinization, and then you be advanced disinfection. Both of those processes the water will be suggested that and tested along the way for quality and then we will be? Typing it and storing it in the center wet reservoir and it will stay there for an extended period of time, and then we will take the water after it is mixed with other water that is in the reservoir and treated again, and then introduce it to the tap water that San Diegans use, it's a very long and competent process but a lot of quality testing along the way, to the slip your San Diego is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it is basically the same way that Orange County has been successfully reusing wastewater?

MATT O'MALLEY: Yes the only difference we're blessed with a great groundwater basin in Orange County and it sinks back in and it is sent back out and it's introduced again in the particle system.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Instead of going into a reservoir goes into an aquifer?

MATT O'MALLEY: Back to mother Earth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How much water do you reuse this way?

MATT O'MALLEY: 70 million gallons a day. We're expanding to 100,000,000 gallons a day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You will be presenting this resolution tomorrow in an effort to gain support for pure water San Diego programs, what will that support, and what are you asking the city Council to do?

HALLA RAZAK: The way that we're looking at this program is not something that we do right away, it actually is the full implementation done by 2035. It is a long-term type of program. In order to start with the first steps I really wanted to lay out what the program is and get counsel, and we are actually taking it to a Council committee tomorrow followed by city Council a few weeks later, but I wanted the Council to see the overall program feel comfortable with it, and concur with us taking that direction because it's going to require a lot of studies, planning, engineering, and a lot of investment on the departments and this is why we are taking it to counsel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Judging from materials that you will be representing to the community this is when you presented as a major choice for San Diego between a fully expanded and implemented water reuse project or possible to billion-dollar price tag for secondary wastewater treatment center, tell us whether reuse project might affect the secondary facility?

HALLA RAZAK: Like you said, San Diego is at the fork in the road, we have the option of going one way or the other, and the option that the department is recommending is in fact going to produce water that is going to be 40% of the water supply portfolio by the year 2035, which would be very beneficial to the option is either upgrading the point Loma plant to secondary standard and continuing to buy fairly pricey imported water supplies, or treating the reclaimed water that we have been producing the last twenty years and processing it into a very high quality potable water and storing it in the reservoir and not needing to buy the very expensive imported water supplies. These are the two options, the option of this additional treatment is actually substantially less expensive than doing the upgrading to secondary treatment and team to buy imported supplies.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the secondary treatment for sewage in San Diego, apparently San Diego is the last major metropolitan area in the US without a secondary treatment system, San Diego has been getting EPA waivers for about twenty years and not building secondary treatment facility appoint Loma, our present waiver runs out next year, how likely is it that we will get another?

MATT O'MALLEY: I don't think I future permits will look at the last waivers and I think it will be a commitment from the city and the of this fork, with my pick the problem here is also a solution, the budget wastewater going out to the ocean we can listen to and reuse it and take care of some water supply issues as well, we're very in support of what they are doing with that and I think that future permits will take a different look in the will probably have some sort of commitment for timelines this far as how much off limit loading will occur from point Loma and how much of that will be reused for potable use another something we support for sure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is the position on the building of a secondary sewage treatment plant?

MATT O'MALLEY: We're the last one that does not have secondary or mandated to go secondary and I think our position is this, as we see that potable reuse is taking place and water is being offloaded, the city will see the method of utilizing as many of those drops of water as possible and in the potable reuse program and if it does come to the point where the EPA or others mandate a secondary treatment May be much less expensive because it will have enough land to be up to do that at this point and I know one of the limiting factors a point Loma the fact is located in one of the worst possible places if you wanted upgrade and we're taking a realistic approach will realize there's so much money going on and around and if we can help deal with environmental impacts coming out of the pipe from point Loma as well as I environmental impacts in the Colorado River basin and California we impact by so much water the bring and we haven't responsibly reuse water that we get from form places the best of our ability as also good for rate payers as well, it will be more cost-effective sum than some other methods.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If we approach the EPA for another waiver to give us time to get this reuse program up and running and not having to build a secondary soup with sewage treatment plant in point Loma will have to confess the EPA that we are serious about this, so what would it take? What do the city needs to do to show the EPA that will always pursuing a really solid reuse program?

HALLA RAZAK: I'm glad you're asking, the reason I am taking this resolution to the Council committee tomorrow is specifically that to show the EPA when we start initiations with them that in fact there is a political will in San Diego to move forward with this very robust program because as I said it will take us twenty years to get that endpoint, and we have had some conversations on a technical level and they are very comfortable with the work that we're doing and we feel very hopeful that we will get there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have had a hard time selling the wastewater purification concept in San Diego, what kind of a reached at you use in San Diego and once you get people on board?

SEAN DEWANE: Before it was a heavy lift at first but we did more than 1000 public information meetings and we deputized city Council members who became accurate experts in the process and the big economics and politics of it all and we had people working for us that in the bin's best sense of the we had advocates in the market and we did have the support of the public.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How is it proceeding now? Is it expected excepted as just part of your total water supply? No one has a problem with it?

SEAN DEWANE: The world is taking notice and it's taking notice and everyone advocates for exactly the point that Matt is making the battle or use of our resources.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Using that it will take twenty years to be implemented, what is taking so long?

HALLA RAZAK: We're looking at approaching this in three phases, building these treatment plants in the pipeline that will be required and it's going to cost money and we want to make sure that we are very effective and how we're approaching so that it is not a tremendous pressure on ratepayers because all of these investments will need to be paid for by repairs and we want to make sure that we are thoughtful as you move forward watching what is happening with supply and demand pictures and are methodical in our approach, right now we are planning to do implementation in three phases and the first phase would be fifteen MGD followed by another fifteen MGD and then at the end of the day by 2035 about 40% of our water supply will be coming from those the resources which equates to 83,000,000 gallons per day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the price tag referred to when we're talking about a secondary wastewater treatment plant on point Loma is somewhere between one and $2 billion, what is the total price tag of this in clean pure water San Diego project?

HALLA RAZAK: To talk about the price is important to look at the price of treatment as well as the price of the purchase of new water supplies, that is what I was talking about at the fork in the road and the options that we have, when you look at and compare both the price differential is about a quarter of $1 billion by 2035 and there are so many ways of looking at the price of that, once we build treatment plants they will last for 50 to 80 years and the price advantage that we get of having a locally controlled water source that is struck proof is really a fantastic opportunity for San Diego to make an investment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Matt O'Malley, I've read about the idea about whether or not the EPA will give us another waiver and not everybody thinks that they're going to be able to extend it to us again because we have had so many of them when it comes to the secondary sewage treatment plant, what type of timeframe do you think is going to satisfy the EPA for this water reuse project? In order to be of the secure a waiver and not to be mended to build it now?

HALLA RAZAK: I can speak for the EPA but I do think that will be concerned with whether or not the next permit there are some commitments made towards offloading and we are also involved to make sure that was coming out of the and the pipe in the future is as protected as what is coming out now, that is a big concern of ours and that is why we stay involved and we have worked with the city of what we support what they're doing and I believe the EPA will have the same concern with any agency that is in charge of our standards and is it important for us to protect the marine environment and we also have regulations that need to be implement from the Department of Public health and we hope it will be fast tracked and happen quickly, it may be that the EPA and regional water Board want to see some sort of implementation in the near term with longer-range goals and that is also something that we would support, but as far as the next permit I do think that the permit application and associated language will have firm commitments as far as what happens moving forward.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I started this conversation by jumping on the phrase toilet to tap and describing why this was not a good or accurate way to describe the reuse of water, and you get the impression that the phrase toilet Is receded in the mind of the public and we have been more sophisticated as far as what water uses and it won't frighten people anymore?

HALLA RAZAK: I believe that in the reason I am saying this is more and more education is happening especially with the historic drought that we have had in the state of California right now, people are starting to understand that we really need to start looking at water resources in a different way, and frankly every glass of water that we have had in San Diego is pure that someone had its Las Vegas two weeks ago, every drop of water that we drink is recycled water and we're doing to this process is injecting proven science and absolute incredible technology to make sure that the process that currently happens in nature happens in a lab with testing at every step of the way, and monitoring, there are as Matt was mentioning the department of health services is very comfortable with the pilot project that we have had which has been operating since 2011, we have so much data showing this incredible water quality that we have and the water is going to be in the reservoir for it extended period time it will be tested throughout that in the water that will be depositing into the reservoir will be the peer source of water that will be going in there. This is the understanding that I believe was developing throughout the community, this is being done in Orange County and the water that is being drunk in Disneyland is actually recycled water, Singapore has been doing it, people in Texas and New Mexico, is happening everywhere.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for your explanations and your real world ex-examples there, I've been speaking with holographic, Matt O'Malley and Sean Dewane, thank you all very much.