Wastewater Recycling

Yes, that’s right — if you live in San Diego, your sewage will be recycled into your drinking water. But before you run away screaming “Gross!” and swear to drink only Coastkeeper staff tries clean waterbottled water forever (not a good option), you should know more about how wastewater recycling works and what we’re doing about it:

Potable Reuse

Following nearly two decades of advocacy by San Diego Coastkeeper and our partners, in 2014, the City of San Diego councilmembers unanimously supported Pure Water San Diego, a plan to transform the city’s wastewater management system into a source of clean, pure drinking water. This conversion from wastewater to drinking water is called “potable reuse.”

The benefits of potable reuse include:

    • Providing a locally and municipally controlled source of local drinking water
    • Diversifying water supply sources
    • Reducing the City’s reliance and vulnerability to outside sources
    • Decreasing wastewater discharges to the ocean
    • Providing an energy-efficient alternative to water imports and other water enhancement alternatives
    • A lower overall per unit cost than water transfers
    • Maximizing the City’s investment by taking advantage of currently underutilized reclamation and wastewater treatment facilities (back to top)

Potable Reuse vs. Desalination

San Diego Coastkeeper supports a diverse water supply portfolio. However, with the region’s limited resources, San Diego County’s immediate capital investment—and corresponding rate increases—should focus on potable reuse projects. Read more about our thoughts on potable reuse versus desalination.

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History of Potable Reuse in San Diego

wastewater facilityThe City’s 2005 Water Reuse Study explored various options to maximize water reuse at the City’s existing North City reclamation facility. As a result from 2007 – 2010, the San Diego City Council funded and approved several contracts for a pilot project that demonstrates that we can safely use highly treated wastewater to augment reservoirs.

In 2006, Coastkeeper attended the military’s ribbon cutting for Camp Pendleton’s $40 million sewage treatment plant, built as a result of a settlement with Coastkeeper. It currently treats 800,000 gallons of sewage from the base and will eventually treat and reuse all five million gallons of sewage a day on the base.

In 2008, Coastkeeper challenged the City of San Diego to fund an $11.8-million pilot project to test the use of highly-treated wastewater as drinking water. This could result in reclaiming up to 16 million gallons a day of sewage at the City’s existing North City Water Reclamation Plant that would otherwise be discharged into the ocean.

In 2009, Coastkeeper and Surfrider reached a Cooperative Agreement with the City that obligated San Diego to undertake a complete assessment of its sewage infrastructure to identify opportunities to maximize water reclamation regionally. Unlike the demonstration project, which is focusing on maximizing reuse from existing infrastructure, the $2 million Recycled Water Study examined opportunities to build new reclamation facilities to expand the City’s overall reuse capacity.

The Water Reuse Study outlines how the City could develop a long-term strategy to reclaim approximately 100 million gallons of sewage that is currently discharged to the Pacific Ocean every day, providing San Diego with much needed local supplies of water. In exchange for the City’s commitment to undertake this study, the environmental groups agreed to not oppose a five-year waiver (which was set to expire July 2015) from secondary treatment standards at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment facility, believing that reducing or eliminating sewage discharges to the ocean provides the best long-term solution for San Diego’s water and sewage issues.

The City of San Diego also completed a year-long demonstration project at the North City facility to demonstrate the quality of water that can be achieved with potable reuse technology. The study determined that the hyper-treated water meets all state and federal drinking water standards and actually contains fewer pollutants than the water we import. The National Academy of Sciences also issued a report examining the potential for potable reuse to safely satisfy our water needs.

Finally, after nearly two decades of advocacy by San Diego Coastkeeper and our partners, in 2014, the City of San Diego councilmembers unanimously voted to implement Pure Water San Diego, a plan to transform the city’s wastewater management system into a source of at least 15 million gallons per day by 2023 and 175 million gallons per day of clean, pure drinking water by 2035. (back to top)

Point Loma Sewage Treatment 301(h) Waiver

sewagelandingpage-s140 million. That’s how many gallons of partially treated sewage from the Point Loma Treatment Facility is dumped into the ocean every day. This sewage is only treated to advanced primary levels- meaning no advanced biological or other treatment is used to reduce the amount of nutrients, bacteria and other contaminants that are present in the sewage. With a water shortage in San Diego, this is an enormous amount of water we could be recycling into drinking water with proper and thorough treatment. Thanks to Pure Water San Diego, by 2035, at least 175 million gallons per day of our wastewater will be converted in to pure, clean drinking water.

The Clean Water Act requires all publicly owned sewage treatment facilities to treat their sewage to at least a minimum treatment level, known as “secondary treatment.” San Diego is the only major city in the country left that still has a waiver from meeting the Clean Water Act’s minimum federal treatment standards. The US EPA grants the waivers for five-year periods. The main reason San Diego hasn’t yet upgraded its plant, which is allowed discharge up to 240 million gallons a day of partially-treated sewage into the ocean, is due to the plant’s location. The facility is perched on the cliffs in Point Loma on land leased from the Navy, with almost no room to expand. This means that upgrading the facility to second treatment carries a hefty price tag. Now that City Council has voted to implement Pure Water, it can be used to continue to successfully apply for the five-year waiver from the EPA until the project is fully realized. (back to top)

Our Current Work

San Diego Coastkeeper leads the Water Reliability Coalition, an unprecedented alliance of San Diego environmental, businesses, labor, economic growth and ratepayer advocates. The Coalition was awarded a 2010 Special Recognition Award from the California Water Reuse Association for its advocacy work on indirect potable reuse.

Now that San Diego City Council unanimously approved Pure Water, San Diego Coastkeeper and the Water Reliability Coalition continue to push the City to secure the investments needed to implement Pure Water San Diego and to ensure progress on the project continues. The City will pursue federal and state grants and low-interest loans to create this regionally important water supply.

As well, realizing the benefits of Pure Water San Diego will require the support of federal and state representatives. This support includes policy, funding and regulatory elements:

  • Policy – Recycling wastewater into drinking water should be explicitly encouraged in state and federal legislation as a source of reliable water to support our economy and quality of life.
  • Funding – Potable reuse will require funding to build conveyance and treatment infrastructure that produces region-wide benefits.
  • Regulatory – Prudent State and federal regulations to support the development of potable reuse should be expedited.

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