California has long been ahead of the curve in instituting environmental reform and enacting sustainability-oriented policy. While San Diego is at a natural disadvantage when it comes to water resources, water recycling initiatives have the city on the forefront yet again.
Jennifer Casamassima, the recycled water program manager at the city of San Diego and a panelist at the Statewide Environmental Summit on Tuesday, discussed a current water recycling demo project with the ability to cut costs for the consumer and increase water supply in a city where 77 percent of water is imported.
The project recycles wastewater into indirect potable water, in essence turning wastewater into drinking water. Opponents have dubbed the concept “toilet to tap,” and while it may not sound palatable to some, the higher purification standards on this water and the reduced cost to consumers make the project a win-win, according to Casamassima.
She said the idea that this is unclean or unsafe water is simply incorrect and almost laughable when considering San Diego’s existing water position, where most of the region's water is imported from the Colorado River and Northern California.
“The city of San Diego is at the bottom of all these systems, river systems, and all of those little squares and triangles are actually waste dischargers that are treating their waste water upstream of where we pull it out,” Casamassima said. “So the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Las Vegas, they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but that would be with the exception of their wastewater. We get it down here in San Diego.”
The exact number of wastewater treatment plants upstream of San Diego is 346. Citizens have been drinking this purified wastewater for a long time; the only difference with this proposal is that the wastewater will be San Diego's, as will the economic benefits.
Casamassima said that the price of recycled water is 80 cents per hundred cubic feet, while the price of irrigation water is more than $4 per hundred cubic feet. This is an artificially low price, but Casamassima said the city will see a quick payback from the system regardless. The city’s water department is now waiting on the results of its current demo study and permit renewal before definitively moving forward with the project, which is at least a few years away.
In addition to this major undertaking, the city’s Water Department has also been selling recycled non-potable water since 1991. With demand for this source of water down, the department is finding ways to increase its zone of use and uptake, and promoting its many benefits. Aside from reduced cost, recycled non-potable users are exempt from level 1 and 2 drought restrictions, which can have significant impacts on businesses.
The Water Department is using small pipeline extensions to bring this option to interested potential customers near the existing pipes, and encouraging customers to switch their cooling towers to use recycled water as well.
The idea of recycled indirect potable water isn’t new in San Diego, but Casamassima said she believes the city is now ready to welcome this cost-saving, sustainable mechanism.
“We’re already at the bottom of the pipeline,” Casamassima said. “It’s not as if all of a sudden in the last 10 years all those waste dischargers popped up and now we're drinking wastewater. We’ve always been drinking recycled wastewater; we just this time around had a very focused public outreach, even before the demonstration project came online. We have a speakers' bureau, we started going out to community groups, and quite frankly, I haven’t met with opposition because people realize that imported water is going up, and the most important thing that they want to have is have drinking water coming to their home or business."