The good news is that all we will have in the future is sewage

The San Diego City Council recently decided, once again, to spend billions to reclaim sewage and then reinsert the resulting product into San Vicente Reservoir, where it will re-enter our (drinking) water supply.

This will be the second time the city staff has convinced a council to try “toilet to tap.”

You may remember the same controversy some years ago. The council was stopped by public protests.

Well, it’s back, this time on PR steroids, in hopes you forget “toilet-to-tap” and think instead “pure water.”

I still believe the idea is a mistake and here is why.

Many years ago, I was the assigned budget analyst overseeing City Water Utilities Department on behalf of the city manager Walter Hahn.

It was a privilege to have that assignment because not only is water important to our city, but even then that department also accounted for around half of the city’s revenues and expenditures: a big job.

The department was headed by an able leader, Dr. Richard King, who was also an expert in urban water supplies.

Dr. King was still director when a few years later I was elected to the City Council.

I met him in the hallway on the way to a briefing and breezily asked him how it was all going, meaning the city’s water situation.

“Well, he said, I have some good news and some bad news.”

Hopefully, I asked: “What’s the good news?”

“Soon all we are going to have is sewage.”

Aghast, I inquired for the bad news.

“The bad news is that by that time, there won’t be enough to go around.”

Dr. King’s words came back to me recently as I toured the city’s modern-day water-reclamation facility in the southwest corner of Miramar MCAS.

I was there to see how we were coping with this drought.

In an earlier column (The mother of all droughts is here…”) I recounted our late ’70s-era City Council’s pioneering of water reclamation.

We led the way on this effort because even then a major drought was foreseeable and it would take time to get ready.

The Padre Dam Water District did so with the brilliant Santee Lakes project that keeps Santee green. Larry Clemens, the developer of Aviara, did the same for his beautiful community.

But in spite of our head start, San Diego ended up not prepared for our current increasingly precarious situation.

It is true. We all do drink reclaimed water. The only difference is who reclaims it. Rain is fresh water miraculously reclaimed by God who has the job down pat. However, we earthlings are just now getting the hang of it and we still make mistakes.

There are two separate issues involved: whether to reclaim water and if so, what to do with it.

As mentioned, our council decided on a strategy of reclaiming water and then to avoid contaminating our drinking water, we planned to distribute the reclaimed water via separate pipes along the freeways where major users could tap in.

Not every house could use it as detailed distribution; that would be impractical.

This policy was later adopted statewide by the California Water Reclamation Act and results in the purple pipes one sees around the state.

That law states that as a matter of public policy it is a waste of money and potable water to use such where reclaimed water could do the job instead. Really just common sense.

The purple color alerts all that there is non-drinkable water passing through the pipes.

While San Diego continued developing reclamation technology, I was elected to the legislature.

Pursuant to our city plan, I successfully carried legislation now enrolled as Section 92.3 of the Streets and Highway Code which required Caltrans, our single biggest landscaper, to do three things.

First, convert all landscaping to drought-resistant plants to reduce the need for water of any kind. Second, Caltrans was to use only reclaimed water wherever available. Third, the department is to facilitate purple-pipe mains throughout its rights of way to provide a distribution system to big users.

That law was enacted almost 30 years ago. I believe Caltrans has converted most if not all of their landscape as directed saving us millions of gallons of precious water each and every year forever.

The department has also converted to reclaimed water where available, saving us other millions of gallons of potable water.

Thank you, Caltrans!

But because the city has not provided enough reclaimed water or demanded the purple-pipe extensions, Caltrans cannot further use or distribute reclaimed water thereby creating the waste of other millions of gallons of expensive potable water year in violation of California public policy.

Why not? The answer is that the city abandoned further marketing of reclaimed water, preferring their so-called “pure water” initiative.

I am not a Luddite. I know that sewer water can be adequately treated to drinking-water standards.

But my question is: Why bother? Doing so is more expensive. The city says this installation will be $3.5 billion. That is a lot. But government agencies notoriously understate such costs and their projects hardly ever come in under budget.

It is also a waste because half of their “pure water” will still be applied to irrigation and industrial uses, thereby wasting around half all that extra expensive treatment.

And finally, once our fellow citizens hear the announcement that the city will now start adding reclaimed sewer water to their drinking water supply, they may well revolt again, stranding other billions of public investment as happened the last time.

And there would be good cause for their angst. No system is perfect. If just one technician failed to open or close a valve, or a filter failed anywhere along the line, there could be a catastrophic failure, putting our citizens at unnecessary risk.

To try to find a compromise, I asked the city staff if they could continue extending the purple pipes for reclaimed water use while pursuing their “pure-water” project.

The answer was an emphatic “No!”

Why not? I asked.

The answer startled me: “Because there will not enough sewage to go around.”

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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3 UserComments
amberfoxwrrdgy 2:01pm December 29, 2014

Good way of explaining, and nice post to obtain information regarding my presentation subject, which i am going to deliver in school.

Marco Gonzalez 11:36am December 29, 2014

Larry, perhaps you should take a quick trip up to Orange County and see where they have successfully implemented "toilet to tap" for years? Your fact-less assertion that CalTrans and others could have used more partially reclaimed water simply isn't true. Expansion of the purple pipe system was fully studied before Pure Water plans evolved. That program was the boondogle.

fernjnywbmmdes 3:14am December 29, 2014

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