The reverse osmosis barriers inside the North City Pure Water Facility / File photo by Megan Wood

The city of San Diego pursued its massive wastewater-to-drinking water recycling program, in part, because the federal government said it had to. Millions of gallons of undertreated sewage enters the Pacific Ocean through the city’s aging Point Loma treatment plant on the regular; Pure Water is the region’s first step toward a solution.

But now, a bloc of eastern San Diego County water agencies is building their own recycling project because, they say, the cost of buying imported water from the drought-ravaged Colorado River is unsustainable. The East County Advanced Water Purification Program would provide 30 percent of the drinking water its participating agencies need, agencies that otherwise rely solely on water imported from hundreds of miles away.

Gone are the days when toilets flushed straight to the ocean. That sewage is now a commodity, a drinking water resource in the world of California drought.

The problem is, the city and the East County faction – a joint powers authority or JPA made up primarily of Padre Dam Municipal Water District, the city of El Cajon and the unincorporated county of San Diego – share in the use and cost of a regional sewage system along with 10 other wastewater agencies.

The city of San Diego and the East County faction are now locked in a very public dogfight, both blaming the other over an unraveling deal after the latter invoked eminent domain over the city of San Diego to buy a critical piece of property needed to build its recycling plant, slated to break ground June 1.

But the scrap has revealed a bigger and more expensive problem the rest of the region will have to grapple with eventually: Since everybody flushes their toilets to the Pacific Ocean through the same pipes, and everybody pays to keep those pipes in good shape, and as more cities roll off to recycle their wastewater, who remains saddled with the cost of maintaining those old pipes?

The 13 total agencies that share San Diego’s wastewater system, called the Metro JPA, are currently debating whether the city of San Diego should downsize its second and largest (and most expensive) phase of its Pure Water project, or count East County’s recycled water towards that federal mandate. It’s going to come down to money.

“The Metro JPA is only concerned with paying its fair share of wastewater costs and only the costs associated with the regulatory requirement,” said Beth Gentry, who chairs a technical advisory group to the Metro JPA, referring to the federal government’s requirement that the city of San Diego divert at least 83 million gallons of wastewater per day from Point Loma to its Pure Water advanced drinking water treatment system.

Right now, each agency pays to keep the sewer system in good shape based on how much wastewater they send through it. So if East County cuts 15 million gallons from its flow, would the remaining cost burden be shifted to the others? Gentry is saying Metro JPA only wants to be on the hook for the city of San Diego’s Pure Water project, which has already been negotiated.

Some worry this battle behind the scenes could stifle the expansion of more recycled water in the region, which many environmentalists consider the cheapest and most reliable water resource compared to shipping it in from the drought-ravaged Colorado River or de-salting ocean water.

“Wastewater recycling for potable reuse is an inevitability for the arid Southwest,” said Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney behind San Diego’s $5 billion Pure Water project. “It’s unquestionably the best option for the environment, equity, and regional sustainability. The hard part is figuring out who should have to pay for the new treatment and delivery infrastructure as the physical and political distinctions between sewer systems and drinking water systems become less clear.”

Pure Water Central vs. Pure Water East

Several years ago, the federal government required the city of San Diego to dump less wastewater into the Pacific Ocean via an aging wastewater treatment plant off Point Loma. Instead of pursuing an expensive upgrade so the Point Loma plant could treat the water to a cleaner standard, the city elected to recycle its wastewater – still an expensive option and now the largest infrastructure project in San Diego’s history.

The city expects to spend almost $5 billion on the Pure Water project, diverting at least 83 million gallons per day away from the ocean under its agreement with the feds. East County, with its own 15 million gallon per day project, has said it would like to take on part of that responsibility. In other words, it wants its 15 million gallons of diverted sewage to count towards the federal government’s 83-million-gallon requirement.

“We’re saying, you can count our flow and if we don’t produce (that water) and there’s a permit violation, you can charge us,” said Allen Carlisle, general manager of Padre Dam Municipal Water District the agency leading the East County project.

Carlisle and East County have repeatedly said that their $950 million project won’t cost anyone else a dime. But it could indirectly raise costs for other agencies.

At an April committee hearing, consulting engineer Dexter Wilson of Wilson Engineering said the other 10 agencies could still be on the hook to support the East County project’s continued use of the regional sewer system that empties into the Point Loma plant.

Billing for that system is based on how much waste each agency flushes into the pipes. The East County agencies have promised to pay to build their project, but once it’s built, it won’t be dumping as much wastewater into the regional system. The remaining agencies, though, emphasize that East County will still need the system the few days a year it rains.

“All wastewater treatment facilities need to have the ability to accommodate that higher flow. The (East County) project will not,” Gentry wrote. “Thus the (East County project) plans to use the (regional) system, but only during those wet weather periods or in other emergency events.”

Under Wilson’s estimates, if East County built its project and took credit for the federally-mandated wastewater spilling into the Pacific Ocean, other cities would have to pay to keep that space in the pipes available to them.

Chula Vista, for instance, would have to pay an estimated extra $2 million once the East County project is built, according to Wilson’s estimate. San Diego would have to pay an extra $12 million.

In a May letter, Kyle Swanson, Padre Dam’s incoming general manager, disagreed with that estimate saying the analysis provides a “highly inaccurate picture” of the cost of their project to the rest of the region.

“The (East County project) will be paid by East County ratepayers,” Swanson wrote.

Swanson later told Planetcob that this issue of paying for capacity in the pipes was a “parking lot” item in the wider regional wastewater agreement, meaning it’s something on deck to be resolved.

“We’re still a Metro JPA member, a participating agency, and want a seat at the table to talk about what is that fair share,” Swanson said.

This is especially relevant because those 10 other agencies have already agreed to pay for Pure Water, and some have stressed they don’t want to pay a penny more.

The Pure Water project is being built in two stages. The first, a 30 million gallon per day water plant, is already underway. If East County counts towards the region’s federal water treatment obligations, then, maybe, San Diego won’t have to build the second phase of Pure Water, a 53 million gallon per day plant, as large as planned. That could be a way to save the region money as a whole, the Metro JPA argues.

“The other agencies might be thinking, if we count East County’s project, can we tell the city to downsize their phase two? East County is agnostic to that,” Carlisle said. “I personally don’t think that’s a good idea. I think the region needs to build it all.”

San Diego Doesn’t Want East County’s Sludge

The war that thrust this wastewater debate into the limelight began when East County declared it would pursue eminent domain over the city of San Diego, an uncommon move between government agencies.

Here’s why.

Once East County builds its treatment plant, the city of San Diego doesn’t want all the sludge East County creates from its wastewater recycling project to end up in the regional sewage system. That’s because San Diego only wants to take on waste over which it has treatment control. It wouldn't have control over the East County project.

To resolve that, in early 2021, the city of San Diego agreed to build a special pipeline where East County can send its sludge at an estimated price tag of around $35 million. East County agreed to cover the maintenance costs of that pipeline.

But that agreement recently fell apart.

The city of San Diego now deems the agreement illegal, citing a discovery that some of the language about how it would pay for that pipeline would make San Diego subject to a legal challenge under Proposition 218, a law that basically says governments can’t make citizens pay for something that doesn’t directly benefit them.

Jay Goldstone, interim chief operations officer at the city of San Diego, blamed the error on former Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration and the city attorney’s office.

“I cannot explain to you how it got agendized and why it wasn’t stopped by the city attorney’s office,” Goldstone said.

East County officials say it doesn’t matter to them what money San Diego uses, or if the special pipeline gets built at all. What they really want is their spoils of the bargain, a set of pumps East County said they were promised as part of the deal so they could start building their water recycling plant. East County believes San Diego is holding these pumps hostage in order to get out of paying for the pipeline.

“They’re holding onto (that pump station) as leverage over us,” said Carlisle, general manager of the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, the lead negotiator on the deal for East County.

“I think it’s a smokescreen for wanting a better deal,” said Steve Goble, an El Cajon councilman who represents the city on the East County recycling project board.

All the warring parties gathered May 19 in Santee for a meeting of the East County group that wants to build their own water recycling plant.

“I’ve heard the comments that we’re holding the JPA hostage by not transferring this (property but from the city’s perspective… the city… was being held hostage because (East County) would not sign the new agreement,” Goldstone, from the city of San Diego, said.

After a lot of finger pointing, East County voted unanimously to begin an eminent domain process against San Diego to try and pry the necessary pump station away without having to settle the sludge pipeline issue. Goble of El Cajon then invited the city of San Diego to stay for a presentation on the new recycling plant before a formal vote to start construction.

“I have a Pure Water line to build, so,” Goldstone said, spurring laughter from the room, before adding, “We’ll work together,” and walking out with city public utilities staff in tow.

San Diego now says it’s actually not about the pumps or the pipeline at all. But the city wants East County to give up a contractual right it holds to dump its own waste into San Diego’s wastewater system.

“That could contaminate the city’s Pure Water project,” said Goldstone. “That’s the major sticking point right now.”

Carlisle of Padre Dam said he’s “perplexed.”

“From the beginning their complaint, which came at the eleventh hour, has always been about the payment and the Prop 218 issue,” he said. “Now they’re adding additional components of the agreement that they just don’t like.”

Carlisle said East County has since agreed to pay for a portion of the $35 million brine line, despite the fact that the signed agreement with the city says it would pay for it.

The parties were scheduled to meet again last week to try and hash-out all the varied demands.

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  1. I find it very troubling that the Morning Report synopsis of this story wrongly states that the federal government required San Diego to recycle wastewater to drinking water. And that this story states that the federal government required the city of San Diego to dump less wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the federal government's concern is that the treatment level of the sewage, prior to dumping it in the ocean, is inadequate. The city had the option to treat it at a higher level, but decided (rightly in my view), to recycle it instead. Facts matter.

  2. Sorry Mr. Brewster but the last waiver for the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment plant did indeed require the building of 83 MGD (million gallons a day) by 2035 as a condition of approval. The complicated question in all of this is who pays for what. The players are San Diego's water and wastewater rate payers, the wastewater rate payers of the Metro JPA participating agencies, and the wastewater ratepayers of the East County JPA. The relationships and impacts are complicated and in come cases new territory. Staying within the spirit and law of Prop 218 and Prop 26 hopefully will keep everyone's feet to the fire and the costs splits fair for everyone. Indeed facts matter.

    1. Thanks for this. Would you not agree that the federal government long pressed the city to upgrade its sewage treatment to the “secondary” level, before releasing it into the ocean, but gave the city temporary waivers, and that the recycling option was proposed by the city as an alternative resolution to that (expensive) secondary treatment? My understanding is that the federal government would have accepted either, thus the feds were not mandating one or the other, just an end to the pouring of minimally treated sewage into the ocean.

  3. Jerry and Chris are both partly correct, but if you want a fuller history of the deal regarding the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, see my 2013 blog post on this issue: where you'll see the role played by San Diego Coastkeeper and environmental activists in the negotiations with the feds.

    In particular you should see the memorandum from Marco Gonzalez on the history of this issue:

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