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Recycling Water- A Clear Solution For San Diego?

Water purification process
City of SD Public Utilities Department
Water purification process
Recycling Water- A Clear Solution For San Diego?
Turning waste-water into crystal clear drinking water seems like something San Diego could only dream of. The City of San Diego is in the middle of a one-year, $11.8 million pilot project to prove that this water is safe to drink.

Turning waste-water into crystal clear drinking water seems like something San Diego could only dream of. However, recycling water is proving to be a reality that many San Diegans can benefit from.

The City of San Diego is in the middle of a one-year, $11.8 million pilot project to prove that this water is safe to drink. They are providing tours to see this process firsthand. We will discuss this process, and how San Diegans are becoming more confident with the idea of recycling water.



Marsi Steirer, Deputy Director of the Long Range Planning of Water Resources Division

Gabriel Solmer, Legal Director, San Diego Coastkeeper

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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.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition am I'm Maureen Cavanaugh San Diego's efforts to purify waste water and make it fit to drink have taken a big step forward this summer. The city's new advanced water purification facility is opened for a year long test. And it's open to the public for tours. Just last August here on KPBS, we had a long discussion about City Council approval of this project and several studies under way to determine our region's ability to use recycled water. Joining us with this update on the project are my guests, Marsi Steirer is deputy director of the city's division of long range planing of water resources. Welcome back.

STEIRER: I'm pleased to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Gabriel Solmer is legal direct offer of proof for San Diego cost keeper. Hi.


SOLMER: Thanks so much.

CAVANAUGH: Marsi, you were here last year when this project was in the planning stage. Tell us now what the water purification facility is doing.

STEIRER: We have taken our public outreach efforts to a new level and we've been open for about four weeks for public tours of the facility. So at the north city water reclamation plant, the demonstration facility is operational. It's a one million gallon a day facility. And the tour begins with a presentation and overview. The treatment process. Then our guests actually walk through and see how the equipment works and we answer questions. And then at the end -- well, the best part is, as a tour guide, I get to holdup a glass of pure water that's a water of the whole treatment process, then everybody gets to see how pure it is.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So at the very end, you say this is what comes out.

STEIRER: Yes, voila!

CAVANAUGH: Where does the water come from that you're treating in this purification facility?

STEIRER: The water originates as waste water that flows into the plant, then it goes through the tertiary treatment process, and that water is used throughout our region primarily for landscape irrigation. That's the source water. Then it goes through this multiple step process in the demonstration plant. For the puretive time time that the demonstration plant is operational we're putting it back into the recycled water distribution system.

CAVANAUGH: So it's fair to say that this is treated waste water before it goes into this purification facility.


CAVANAUGH: And where does it go again?

STEIRER: For the recycled water, that we have, it's sometimes called a purple pipe system throughout the region, this advanced treated recycled water gets put back into that system.

CAVANAUGH: Where would it go, though, if indeed this test is successful? I was looking at an outline that you have on your website, and it would go into a reservoir; is that right?

STEIRER: Whys. If the city pursued a full scale project, we would need to build a constructive pipeline, about 23†miles to San Vicente reservoir. Andy woo would build a larger facility. It would be treated and go to San Vicente reservoir, where it would be mixed and imported about local run off, then go back to a treatment plant, then it would be distributed to homes and businesses in the city as drinking war.

CAVANAUGH: Gabriel, let me go to you from San Diego coast keeper. If you could, give us some background on this. Why was this water reuse project started?

SOLMER: Well, we're really excited to see the advances that we have had this summer. But it's been a long road to get here. One of the things that coast keeper and some of the other environmental groups, surf rider, have been involved in is working with the city so we are not wasting this water. We talk about waste water, but really it's a waste of water to have all of this going out, mostly at Point Loma, the treatment plant there, out into the ocean nearly two hundred million gallons a day. 100 and 80 million gallons a day at Point Loma alone. What the groups have worked on, a whole coalition of industry groups, the taxpayers' association, a lot of people are interested in this, and what we've done is worked with the city to see how we can reclaim that water so we're not wasting that water and that precious resource just using it once and then discharging it to the ocean.

CAVANAUGH: And if you could, for even a little bit further background, if you could remind us, where we get our water now.

SOLMER: Right. That's a big issue for people to know about. 80 to 90%, it depends on the year, is imported water. That comes from the Colorado river system. It also comes from the San Joaquin delta in Sacramento. That's a problem for us because as anyone knows who's looked at a financial portfolio, you don't want to be so invested in one water source. We really need that local control source and to move off of that exhorted water.

CAVANAUGH: Marsi, if I recall correctly from our discussion last year, this purification process is similar to one that's already in use up in Orange County, is that right?

STEIRER: Yes, that's correct.

CAVANAUGH: And the only difference is that they put their purified water into an aquifer, and we would put ours into a reservoir.

STEIRER: Yes. They have a very large aquifer, and their project is 70 million gallons a day, operational for three years, and they were in the process of expanding their facilities to 100 million gallons a day.

CAVANAUGH: And to be clear, people are already drinking reclaimed water in areas of Orange County.

STEIRER: Yes, if you've been to Disneyland, you've had that water. And in fact, the water gets piped about 17†miles east from their facility, and it's put into the Anaheim hills area, it percolates into the groundwater basin. We are not able to do that in our region because we don't have very large groundwater basins. That's why we go the reservoir route.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know this was stalled because of the dreaded toilet to tap description that was so popular. And I know research was done to San Diegans about their thoughts on purifying water. Why did you find out from those surveys and outreach? How have minds been changed?

STEIRER: I think the minds have been changed as a -- I'll give credit to our outreach team. We've done a lot of outreach, and the team extends to the coalition that Gabe had mentioned. We commissioned pooling in 2,004, we commissioned poling in 2009 as well as in 11. And I think some of the strongest differences -- in 2004 when folks within the city were asked their opinion about using advanced treated recycled water in addition to the drinking water supply, 45% opposed. And this past, about 3 or 4†months ago, when the pole was taken, it's only 11%. Strongly favor and somewhat favor, it was 68% versus 28% in 2004. So clearly that is a really significant shift. The numbers are quite remarkable.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to and both of you, why do you think those opinions have shifted? Let me start it with you. Why are people thinking differently about this, do you think, Marsi?

STEIRER: Well, I think when people hear the whole idea about toilet to tap, of course that's offensive because that doesn't sound good. But I think when you have a chance to spend time with people and have them understand the level of treatment and the fact that this is taking place in other parts of the world, and just how effective the treatment process is, I think all of that is really effective information. One of the questions that I'm asked a lot is does this mean that at the end, this water is really safe? Can you assure me? And I can say yes. We have had multiple tests and through this rigorous multi-barrier treatment process, anything that's bad that's in the water is removed.

CAVANAUGH: And Gabriel, why do you think attitudes have shifted?

SOLMER: I think people are really understanding the reality of our water supply picture in terms of the unpredictable nature of our exhorted water supply. They understand that that has environmental impacts for the delta, down here. It's often just unavailable. And we really need to have a local source here. But I also think that people are realizing -- we talked about recycled water. All water is recycled, reclaimed, and the water we get from the Colorado river and the San Joaquin delta, that is water that has been reclaimed. We like to say what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas. We have a lot of discharges into our drinking water supply right now. This is a way through this advanced treatment process for us to have greater control over our water to treat it to a higher sort so when it goes back into our reservoirs, we hope after this pilot project, and we do a full scale implementation, then that water will be cleaner than the water that it's going into. So I think people are realizing that the facts are there, the science is there, and then wee also had a coalition grow up. This is not just environmental groups anymore saying this is important. This is laborer groups, taxpayer groups. They know that the cost is more efficient here, the in industry groups that need this water for high process industry situations, this is really a jobs issue. So I think all of that realization has brought us to a sense where we've got the data, the science, and we know this is the right path.

CAVANAUGH: Marsi, if indeed this project is successful, how much water could it produce for the city?

STEIRER: On an annual average about 15 to 16 million gallons a day.

CAVANAUGH: What and that mean in terms of how much we use?

STEIRER: I think our annual is around 200-million gallons a day within the city. So I think mathematically that's 3 or 4%.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Would it be enough to perhaps reduce water rates? Has anybody taken that into consideration?

STEIRER: Well, as a part of the over all project, we are looking at the economics and the cost. And you'd mentioned that the facility will be operational for a year. So information about how the operations went, the outreach data, that will all be issued in a report in 2012.

CAVANAUGH: So you basically have to see how much it costs and how it works. And that report will be on next year. Of we'll probably have you on next year to talk about it as well. Gabriel, I do want to focus on Coastkeeper for a moment because of course your mission is the health of our oceans. And how does water purification process help our ocean?

SOLMER: Well, it's obviously connected. And I think the issue is that right now like I talked about, we've got waste water that's treated at Point Loma. It's not treated to a secondary standard, which is sort of the law of the land. There's a waiver from that full treatment. We've been in many negotiations, coast keeper, and many other environmental and industry groups have talked with the city about how we can reduce the impact of those discharges going out into the ocean, and ultimately step away from that waiver. And one way we can do that is if we are reclaiming some of that water through this recycled water process, and this advanced treatment. Then the water doesn't go out to the Oceanside. One we're not wasting the water, but two we're not having those ocean discharges. That would be a great thick. And we talked about the 16 million gallons per day for a San Vicente project. We would like to see that expand further and have additional treatment plants. This is just the first step to make sure that our state wide agencies, department of public health understand the safety. That's obviously of paramount importance for everyone to know.

CAVANAUGH: Last year when we spoke, Coastkeeper was involved in a study about the viability of water reclamation in our region. What did that study find?

SOLMER: Well, we are very excited to get the draft report, I believe, at the end of the month. Marsi and I have been working very closely on that. Soy woo will be excited to see that on the 30th. Then that will come out as a full report in October. But we're very excited just through that process. It's been a fairly exhaustive process. We're very excited to work with the city on that to show that this kind of treatment is possible, and you could maximize the potential for reuse across the city.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to concentrate in the final minutes we have, Marsi, on the idea that people can actually see this facility at work. Tell us about the tours.

STEIRER: It's located at the north city water reclamation plant, which is at the intersection of Mira Mar road and 805. We are open on Tuesdays and Thursdays for tours in the morning. There's one evening a month and one Saturday. Folks can -- I'll give you a phone number as well as information they could sign up and register for a tour on their computer. So to do it via e-mail, it's www.pure water And the phone number is 6195536638. It lasts about an hour, there's free parking, we have a limit of 15 people per tour. It's a space issue as well as being able to hear effectively. I've mentioned there's a portion associated with a power point presentation and some slides and a video to understand the treatment process. Then the experience then moves outside in the whole entire -- the tour lasts about 45†minutes. At the end is another fun part. We go back into the building, and there's three water samples, one is recycled water from the plant, one is drinking water from the tap in the kitchen at the plant, and the third is from the advanced water purification facility, and we and our guests to guess which one came from the plant D. Of.

CAVANAUGH: Do they always get it right?

STEIRER: No. In fact, but it is kind of fun because people get up close and examine and guess. So they -- we try to have it be a fun interactive experience.

CAVANAUGH: We have a diagram of the water purification process online on our website. If you didn't jot it down, we can also have links to where you can sign up and go on those tours. I've been speaking with Marsi Stye with the city's division of long range planning of resources, and Gabriel Solmer of San Diego coast keeper. I want to thank you both so much.

STEIRER: Thank you.

SOLMER: Thank you Maureen.