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Coastal Commission Rejects S.D. Sewage Waiver

Coastal Commission Rejects S.D. Sewage Waiver
The California Coastal Commission recently told San Diego to upgrade its main sewage treatment facility. The city's third request for a waiver from the federal Clean Water Act was rejected late last week.

GLORIA PENNER (Host) The California Coastal Commission is a powerful agency. Well, last week the commission brandished its power by issuing a denial to San Diego that could have massive financial repercussions. The agency said no to exempting San Diego from federal standards for cleaning sewage that gets dumped into the ocean. So, Hieu, first of all, bring us up to date. The federal Clean Water Act was passed 35 years ago and cities were required to upgrade sewage treatment to something called secondary treatment to lessen the pollution from discharges into the ocean, but not San Diego. Why?

HIEU TRAN PHAN (Specialists Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): I will start off with a little bit of a newsroom back – behind the scenes to show you what kind of a startling vote that the Coastal Commission put in. Mike Lee, who is our longtime environment reporter, has covered this for several years, had already prepared a story saying that the Coastal Commission voted to approve the third waiver for San Diego.


PHAN: And he was just getting ready to call a main source for comment. And, lo and behold, the vote came in, it was 8-to-1 against this third waiver and it shocked everyone. And I think it shocked everyone especially because the Coastal Commission staff, not the commissioners themselves, tend to be more, I guess some people would say, anti-development than the commissioners themselves. And here was a rare case of the commissioners actually going against the recommendation of its staff, also going against the recommendation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the San Diego Water – Regional Water Quality Control Board, all these different agencies.

PENNER: Were they all saying give them – give us the exemption?

WARREN: The Water Board.

PHAN: They were all granting this preliminary waiver. They were waiting for the Coastal Commission to give its green light and then it would be finalized. So they really threw a curveball here for the public and for the regulators and applicants of San Diego. And I think the underlying part that you'll see, there are various details and people can argue back and forth about whether secondary treatment is significantly better than what the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant currently has but the underlying point is, I think, this process started all the way back in 1979 and we've had two waivers now and the majority of coastal commissioners felt that San Diego has not really taken any concrete action to improve the use of wastewater recycling, to put in more purple piping, to actually have some concrete plans about how to solve and increase the water supply for our city which still relies about 90% of its water – importing water instead of having its homegrown supply.

PENNER: Well, that's really interesting because I have to tell you, I got a phone call from La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid who said that seven or maybe nine other cities in the county use the Point Loma plant and that, he said, that instead of wasting time going after waivers, there should have been plans on how to expand the plant for secondary treatment and the huge cost to comply would have been a lot less. Do you agree with Art Madrid? What do you think, JW?

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Well, I usually agree with Art Madrid but not on this one because, first, the physical location of the plant. It's Navy land on one side, the Cabrillo Monument on the other. There's no place to put anything. It's – physically, it's a tough thing to do. And I don't think we – he's given enough credit for the work that the City has done, pushing the recycled water plan. The disinfectant process at the Point Loma plant's improved greatly. The EPA said, hey, you guys done a good job.

PENNER: So you think that we've made some progress.

AUGUST: We have. It's been – Okay, maybe it's not the giant steps they want but I honestly think those guys on the commission had something in their mocha latte when they did this thing and they're probably just jealous because it's San Diego.

PENNER: Okay, let me ask our listeners about this. I don't know if you've been keeping up with the story. It's a major breaking story this week, this denial of the waiver. It really took a lot of people by surprise and, you know, some people are saying, oh, just a bunch of environmentalists on the Coastal Commission are saying, oh, we've got to clean up the ocean. However, there are those who disagree with them and you heard what our editors had to say so far. What do you think? And I would like to have your call, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. John, what do you think? Is this just a bunch of environmentalists on the Coastal Commission who…

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well…

PENNER: …are going overboard?

WARREN: …I'm going to surprise you. I agree with the Coastal Commission. I don't think we should've received a third waiver. You've got 170 million gallons of sewage being dumped a day. Most people don't realize what four and a half miles offshore means to the rest of the ocean. But we have a tendency in San Diego, and those in power and positions have a tendency to make exceptions in politics a substitute for policy. We are the largest sewage treatment plant facility that does not have the secondary component. And I'm not impressed with the study that came out of Scripps because where does Scripps sit?

PENNER: That's the debate that went on for years, a debate as to whether we really needed…

AUGUST: Yeah, but…

PENNER: …to go to secondary treatment.

AUGUST: …if you can't trust Scripps, who can you trust? I don't think they had any political motive to come back with a report that said, you know, they looked at the water, they say there's nothing long term damage, they can't find anything. But what was this? 2007, 2008?

PENNER: There is…

AUGUST: I mean, they are the experts.

WARREN: Where are they located?

PENNER: I think…

AUGUST: Well, I know that but I would think they'd be motivated. If they could find something, they'd be motivated to…

PHAN: Regardless of where Scripps is in La Jolla versus Point Loma, I do want to say they did go to the site of the discharge and studied it. And I will say that there's a little caveat that's not been reported about the study. The scientists said based on the limited funding that they had, they could only look at the immediate vicinity around the discharge and not look at the larger marine ecosystem around there. So it was definitely a constrained study. The other thing I want to bring up is the reason why this is an important topic, I mentioned to JW, this is not a sexy issue but 15 other water agencies, sewage agencies, besides San Diego rely on this plant. If we have to upgrade it at a cost of up to $1.5 billion, it will mean much higher rates, water rates, for customers throughout much of the county from, you know, Coronado and Chula Vista and National City, El Cajon, Del Mar, and we already have, in San Diego city, a steady stream of revenue – I mean, water rate increases, about 37% projected through the next five years. And…

PENNER: So you're thinking about the effect on the public.

PHAN: If the public doesn't care, it should care. It’s going to be their pocketbook issue.

PENNER: Okay, thank you. Let's hear from Omar in Chula Vista. Omar's been hanging on since the program started 40 minutes ago. Omar, it's your turn.

OMAR (Caller, Chula Vista): Well, thank you very much. Gloria, this continues a discussion I had with one of your erstwhile guests on his new radio talk show and I did read the U-T editorials, the pro-waiver editorials, and they made three points I wanted to try and debunk. And one is right now they're saying our Level I protocols are currently meeting the Level II standards. Well, may or may not be true but if – even if it's so, what happens in five to ten years if we add fifteen – 50,000 more sewer hookups? Now…

PENNER: Okay, your other two points?

OMAR: Number two is construction costs are at historically low levels now so if we were going to have to do it, this is the time. And number three is, if we somehow get a special exemption and never have to do this, it would be like as a homeowner, you see your neighbor get a waiver for fees that you have to pay. And all the other cities who have already spent this money are going to come back to the federal government and say, hey, San Diego is getting a pass on this. We want our money back or we want a reimbursement. And I don't think they'd do that.

PENNER: Omar, three very, very interesting points. And, you know what, we are going to respond to them but we're going to have to wait until after the break. So, gentlemen of my panel, will you remember everything Omar had to say so that we can talk about it after the break?

WARREN: Certainly will.

PENNER: Okay. John says yes, and so we'll rely on him. We are talking about the no vote from the Coastal Commission on a waiver for San Diego's secondary treatment on our Point Loma sewage plant. And we'd like to hear from you. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

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PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner. And we're here at the roundtable with Hieu Tran Phan from the Union-Tribune, San Diego Union-Tribune, and from San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, John Warren, and JW August who is the managing editor of KGTV 10News. We are talking about the Coastal Commission vote that said, no, San Diego, you cannot get your third waiver to – from upgrading your sewage treatment plant. You got to spend that $1.5 billion and get that plant upgraded just the way all the other cities in California have. So we are having some response to that and among the respondents are our listeners. In fact, now they are our callers, so let's hear from Ron in Bonita. Ron, you're on with the editors.

RON (Caller, Bonita): Good morning.

PENNER: Good morning.

RON: The one thing I keep – I keep hearing about this is everybody complaining about how much it's going to cost. There's no conversation about the obligation we have as users to get this job done. All we ever want to do is put our hand up and ask for a waiver or try and get a waiver, and then everybody's really surprised when somebody says maybe two times is enough. The question becomes why did we not get this project done during the period that we had those two waivers? Why did we not save up the money or get the money how ever we needed to? And if a rate increase is what's required, to me, that makes total sense. And I know people don't want to spend any more money but we had a lot more money in the nineties and in the early 2000s than we do now to get this job done.


RON: So to complain about money is not an issue.

PENNER: So let me ask you about that. Now, Hieu, you've already said it's going to be costly for people but I think that Ron asks a fair question. Why didn't we have it taken care of during the time that we got the other two waivers and the economy was good?

PHAN: I think in the present tense, whenever you say we're in a deficit mode, we – a study seems to show that we don't have significant harm and so forth, you're pushing it off to the next generation, basically. You do what's most perhaps practical at the time, which is you don't want to upset your ratepayers and you want to be able to provide a deferral for the next mayor perhaps to work on, or the next city staff to work on. What I will say is, the commissioners pointed out something important during their hearing in San Francisco, which is even with this third waiver, even if it were granted, there is no requirement that the City look at ways to increase the use of recycled water, there is no stipulation there that it will not get a fourth waiver. It is just basically an urging by the EPA for the city officials to get their act together.

PENNER: But at this point Congressman Bob Filner is getting into the act. He's saying he's going to approach the Obama administration on granting the waiver, and he was the one who wrote the original legislation that got the first waiver so is politics already at play? Is politics going to make the decision on this, John Warren?

WARREN: Well, of course Filner has to be involved. And, of course, it's political. He's already talked about going to the governor and asking him to overturn the Coastal Commission, which is not likely to happen. And now he's going to propose some legislation, and those are the kinds of things he's expected to do as a member of the delegation from this area. The question is, will Davis and Bilbray and Hunter and others, Issa, will they join in with him in terms of such a move? I don't see the Obama administration stepping up to give him, by executive decree, the change that he wants so it's going to be legislative. But I agree with the callers. We should've done it a long time ago. It's a capital improvement project and municipalities always put off capital improvements because they're not readily visible and they confuse them with regular budget. So we need to get this done.

PENNER: Yeah, but, JW, even Mayor Sanders says he thinks the denial was a political conclusion. Do we – I mean, is politics involved in the decision about granting an exemption to the Clean Water Act? Was – Did those coastal commissioners say there is a political reason not to grant that waiver?

AUGUST: I really don't know. I don't – I'm not privy to their meetings but that's the first thing that pops in your head. Or that or they're just being vindictive and they've said, by golly, we've going to teach San – We only have one member on the board, San Diego, I believe, and I think this is – they're saying enough is enough, San Diego, you've got to take care of business. I will say in defense of the city, there is some $2 million project in the works, an 18 month study, to look at ways where they can decrease the amount of sewage they're sending through the plant and looking at more ways to recycle. So the City is being proactive. And as far as we should've done it before and we should've done it now, I mean, I could talk – I have a long list of things I could talk about that. That's not reality. We got to deal with reality.

PENNER: As they say in Las Vegas, shoulda woulda.

AUGUST: Yeah, shoulda woulda.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, gentlemen. Let us move on.

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