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KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego City Council Approves Wastewater Recycling Deal

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San Diego City Council Approves Wastewater Recycling Deal
San Diego City Council Approves Wastewater Recycling Deal
San Diego City Council Approves Wastewater Recycling Deal GUESTSMatt O'Malley, San Diego Coastkeeper Halla Razak, director, San Diego's Public Utilities Department

TOM FUDGE: And our top story on Midday Edition, yesterday, Marti Emerald, a member of the San Diego City Council, said, ''We can no longer afford to use water just once in this region.'' She said that prior to being one of nine votes on the council to approve a plan to make recycled water more than a third of San Diego's overall water supply in the next 20 years. There were no votes in opposition. Mayor Kevin Faulkner has made clear his support of water recycling. The cost will be high, an estimated $3.5 billion but there would be a big cost savings too. Joining me to talk about that and more are two guests from the civics and environmental communities. Halla Razak joins me in studio. She is director of the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department. And Halla, thank you, very much. HALLA RAZAK: Thank you. TOM FUDGE: And Matt O'Malley joins me as well. He's with San Diego Coastkeeper. Matt, thanks. MATT O'MALLEY: Thank you for having me. TOM FUDGE: Well, Halla, this project, Pure Water San Diego as it is called, how much water is it expected to produce in the future? HALLA RAZAK: By 2035, 20 years from today, we expect to receive 83-million gallons per day, which is about a third the amount of water that San Diegans will be using at that time. TOM FUDGE: And this will be 83-million gallons a day coming from three different recycling plants? HALLA RAZAK: Correct. Two of them are already existing, we'll be expanding them. And then we will be building a third one in the North Harbor Facility. TOM FUDGE: Let me get right into discussion about the cost. And I mentioned this, the estimate in my introduction. $3.5 billion which I think includes the cost of interest on the loans. Where will that money come from? HALLA RAZAK: So we have been very aggressive in seeking out federal and state funding. As a matter of fact, the bond Proposition 1 that passed recently, the water bond, will be paying quite a bit in support of this program. We also have been working very closely with the federal government on the WIFIA and the Title 16 funding. So we are aggressively pursuing that. And as time goes on, what Pure Water does in fact, we right now with our Point Loma treatment plant need to be spending about around $2 billion to upgrade it as a requirement from the Clean Water Act. Instead of doing that, we will be directing that money in offloading flow to the treatment plant. And using that money investing in a brand new water supply that will be drought tolerant, locally controlled, and the right cost option for San Diegans. TOM FUDGE: You said that some of the money or a lot of the money will come from Proposition 1 which the voters just passed, the state water bond. Now, is that money we have or money we have to apply for? HALLA RAZAK: Money that we will be applying for. TOM FUDGE: Okay. And what about consumers? Are they going to have to pay their share? Are rates going to have to go up to pay for this system? HALLA RAZAK: When we look into the future and see what is happening with imported water supplies, currently, San Diego depends 85% from our water comes from outside the region. We anticipate that these costs will continue rising at a pretty high rate just like they have been since 2007. So consumers will have to pay more money for our water supplies anyway. This will be as a solution when you put the wastewater piece and the water recycling will be in fact a more cost effective option for San Diegans. TOM FUDGE: In fact, reports about a year ago from the San Diego water purification demonstration project claims the future cost of recycled and imported water would be about the same, about a thousand dollars per acre foot. And that is significant because currently isn't recycled water considered to be about twice as much as imported water? HALLA RAZAK: It is not exactly twice as much but close to it. But yes, as I mentioned, imported water rates will continue climbing. And there will be a point in time in the near future where the numbers will be the same. TOM FUDGE: Well Matt, let me get you involved. First of all what is your reaction to what happened in city hall yesterday? MATT O'MALLEY: We are very pleased. This is something in a Coastkeeper has been advocating for quite some time. Probably a better part of the last 12 to 15 years, we have been involved in this working with the city. We see this as a great solution, integrated water management solution. We are addressing discharge elimination into the ocean and reducing that substantially in the long term. And we are creating as Halla said, a really good water supply for a region that we have control over that is drought proof. We hope to be able to cut down on some of the import water that we are importing. Hopefully leave some of that water to the ecosystems that they are coming from. And quite frankly, this is just better for the environment overall. So yeah, very pleased. And this is something that we have been advocating for a long time for. TOM FUDGE: You know, Halla, we currently import 85% of our water in the City of San Diego. HALLA RAZAK: That is correct. TOM FUDGE: Okay. Now, just about ten years ago wasn't it 95% or wasn't it significantly higher? HALLA RAZAK: It fluctuates a little bit with what is happening. But yes, in the region, we have been working very hard with our other entities in diversifying the water supply portfolio that we have. We have been, we have done a great job in ensuring water coming from Imperial Irrigation District with the transfer in the canal lining projects. The water authority has a water purchase agreement with Poseidon Desalination Plant. That plant is expected to be online later on in 2015. So we have done a lot of work in diversifying the water supply portfolio in the region. TOM FUDGE: Matt, one aspect of this recycling plan is supposedly what this is what we'll do in exchange for the feds not requiring us to upgrade the Point Loma treatment plant where the wastewater gets pumped out to sea. Now, do I have that right? MATT O'MALLEY: Basically what you are doing is reducing the discharging out into the ocean. So there are different standards. It is important to recognize that the plant currently meets the standards in the Clean Water Act for special provision for San Diego. What we are trying to do with this, you know, the permits that this operates under actually called pollution discharge elimination permits. It is aimed at the clean water. It is aimed at getting rid of the discharge into the ocean. And this is a big first step in that direction. So yes, there is a provision under this agreement and this program where you will be cutting down on the amount of effluent that goes out rather than actually upgrading to a secondary treatment. TOM FUDGE: But Halla, do we have a deal with the feds? Is the EPA going to look at the exception of the rule we have here in San Diego in terms of sending wastewater out to sea, and say, ahh, that's okay, because they are recycling a lot of water. HALLA RAZAK: Once the City of San Diego came to agreement with our environmental partners and got the support of the business community as well, we have been working really hard in discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency. And we as a matter of fact a couple of months ago had a trip with the Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Faulkner was on the trip as well. And we met with the EPA officials as well as the legislative delegation over there. The idea is that we are looking at a couple of options on how to proceed. We want to make sure that we get assurance from the federal government that we would not be required to change the Point Loma treatment plant to secondary treatment and spend around $2 billion. Instead we would be given that assurance if we proceed and continue with Pure Water. So that is what we are working on right now. TOM FUDGE: Okay. And that was one of the cost savings that I mentioned in my introduction, the saving of $2 billion that you would need to get Point Loma treatment plant up to secondary treatment levels. You are listening to Midday Edition. I am Tom Fudge. My guests are Halla Razak and Matt O'Malley. Halla is director of the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department. Matt is with San Diego Coastkeepers. And we are talking about the action by the San Diego City Council yesterday to approve $3.5 billion plan to recycle water, recycle wastewater. Halla, now that the city is moving forward with this plan, what is the next immediate step? I mean what do you start to build? HALLA RAZAK: So my first step is to actually submit for the waiver, now that I have the approval of the structure of it. And once I do that, then I am going to start working on making sure that we get the assurance from the federal government that we would not need to upgrade to secondary treatment. TOM FUDGE: Okay. So that is step number one. HALLA RAZAK: Yes. The second step is very quickly do the planning and the design for the North City Reclamation Plant. That will be the first phase of the project. 15 million gallons per day. And we anticipate that water will be coming to San Diego from that plant by 2023. TOM FUDGE: Okay. So 2023 it is going to be in motion. We are going to start using recycled water. HALLA RAZAK: Yes. TOM FUDGE: You know, Matt, it seems like in public opinion we've come a long way on this subject. It wasn't too long ago that people were calling this toilet to tap. And there was a huge yuck factor. Are we passed that? MATT O'MALLEY: I have seen some recent numbers where three quarters of the local population is in support of it. There are two things. One, the drought is a teaching tool to let people know how dire our water situation is. And two, groups like ours, and even the city and others are really starting to educate people. And it is catching on that every drop of water we drink is recycled. We are getting water that has been through many treatment processes throughout the entire chain. When we get raw water from the Colorado that water has been through many treatment processes before it gets here. We are taking advantage of it at the end of the pipe and using it to the best of our ability. TOM FUDGE: And this recycled water, how clean can will it be? MATT O'MALLEY: Very clean. I think Halla could probably answer to that. But when we put it into the reservoirs, the surface water augmentation, it is going to be cleaner than the raw water that is in the reservoir. TOM FUDGE: Then Halla, why not take the recycled water and put it directly into the pipes? HALLA RAZAK: We are in fact, working with the state on that. There are differences of indirect potable reuse versus direct potable reuse. I know these are long terms, but we are working with the state and getting them to come up with regulations to allow us to do that. TOM FUDGE: And you know, Matt, we have been talking about water recycling as it is sort of well, the Holy Grail in terms of environmental protection. But when you look at the system the city is going to create, are there any environmental concerns about what is going to be done? MATT O'MALLEY: Every time you have environmental permitting for any kind of infrastructure process, you have to go through that permitting process that is a public process. That is open for everyone to review and comment on. We don't expect that there will be many issues there, but we will be watching. For us, primarily getting involved with the production of the water source. And making sure that the marine environment was not degraded. And we think this gets at both of things. If there is anything that comes up with the process I'm sure we will sit down and work with the city to see that it is implemented appropriately. But nothing that we can expect at this point. TOM FUDGE: You know, Matt, at one point I think you said something like eventually San Diego will not have any effluent going into the ocean; is that the goal? MATT O'MALLEY: Well that's something I think that is the goal for everyone. Down the line you know zero discharge for a lot of environmental organizations, it's really the Holy Grail that we would like to see. So we don't think this is going to happen overnight. And I see this as one of the first steps in the process. You see Orange County making more and more use of its recycled water. My hope is once the city fully implements this, we realize how beneficial that water use is and how economically beneficial it is. TOM FUDGE: Halla, do you see a time when we can have zero effluent going out to sea? That big old Point Loma treatment plant is going to turn into rust. HALLA RAZAK: I have to tell you that I am going to take it one step at a time. I am moving forward with my eyes wide open. And we are going to do the right investment for the rate payers in San Diego. Success breeds success. But we are taking it one step at a time. TOM FUDGE: And Matt, I did want to ask you a question about desalination, I know that has been controversial among environmentalist. What do you see is the future of desalination? MATT O'MALLEY: Well, I think our position has always been if we conserve to our greatest capacity, and we recycle past that. And we use the reduce, reuse, recycle motto, we hope to cut down on additional sources that are very energy intense and do have climate impacts and environmental impacts. And so if we consider the list of things we should be looking to in our organization standpoint, desal would be among the bottom. Conservation recycling among the top. That's why we are pleased with this program. TOM FUDGE: Okay. Halla any last word about what you think water recycling is going to mean to us in the future? HALLA RAZAK: I think yesterday was a very great day for San Diego. And this program is going to be a legacy program. It is not going to just benefit the current people living in San Diego, but really benefit for several generations to come. TOM FUDGE: All right. I want to thank my guests for joining me. We have been talking about the vote by the City Council Yesterday, the San Diego City Council to project water recycling into the future. My guest have been Halla Razak Director of the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department. Halla, thank you. HALLA RAZAK: Thank you. TOM FUDGE: And Matt O'Malley with San Diego Coastkeeper. Matt. MATT O'MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

The San Diego City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved renewing a federal permit needed to continue operations of the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. The renewal includes a commitment by the city to begin a $3.5 billion project to recycle wastewater for potable use.

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Supporters hope the project — called Pure Water San Diego — will result in recycling enough purified water to account for 30 percent of San Diego's drinking water needs by 2035.

City officials also plan to build a water-purification plant on North Harbor Drive to supplement efforts to recycle wastewater, but no timeline was given.

"We can no longer afford to use water just once here in this region," Councilwoman Marti Emerald said.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer called the Pure Water San Diego program "innovative and ambitious." The water will be reliable, drought-resistant and less expensive than importing 85 percent of water the city relies on, he said.

"Our city's presented with an incredible opportunity — to gain water independence, the ability to control our own water supply for the very first time," Faulconer said.

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Halla Razak, the city's Public Utilities Director, said the 20-year program would provide a "safe, reliable and local drinking water supply for San Diego and "uses proven water purification technology and is environmentally sustainable."

Environmental groups like San Diego Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and the San Diego Audubon Society all back the city's approach.

"This vote represents a critical step towards solving San Diego County's water supply issues, and forms the basis of a new paradigm for water treatment and reuse in arid regions throughout the U.S. and Southern California," said Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation Executive Director Marco Gonzalez.

Congressman Scott Peters, who worked on the project when he was on the City Council, congratulated Faulconer and Council President Todd Gloria for their work pushing the project forward.

"Safely recycling wastewater into drinking water is not just the environmentally-friendly thing to do, but makes financial sense as we become less reliant on imported supplies," he said in a statement released Wednesday.

Often derided with names like "toilet-to-tap," a multi-step cleansing process being tested by the city will produce 1 million gallons daily of water cleaner than what residents drink now, and that meets or exceeds quality standards, according to backers of the plan.

"This agreement will significantly reduce the outflow of treated wastewater in our ocean, while providing a local, reliable water source for the City of San Diego," said Roger Kube, Chair of Surfrider Foundation San Diego County Chapter.

The project will be paid for by a mix of state and federal grants, and rate increases on consumers.

The handful of city residents who spoke in opposition to the plan cited costs, environmental concerns and worries that toxins, such as those from prescription medications, could be left in the water.

"I do not believe San Diego needs to sacrifice the health of our ocean in exchange for diluting our sewage for an easy supply for potable water," Ellen Shively said.