San Diego Council members see benefit of water purification votes

The Environmental Quality Report Card series examines environmental stewardship of San Diego Councilmembers and the Mayor. The series looks at history of past reports, shows the voting record of individual Councilmembers, explains voting methodology and examines the environmental issues the Councilmembers voted on.

On Wednesday of this week, a coalition of environmental nonprofits will release their second annual Environmental Quality Report Card for the City of San Diego.
Last year’s Report Card made quite a splash.  (It is available online from the League of Conservation Voters San Diego.)  The Mayor and most of the City Council received fairly terrible grades. The media covered it extensively, and it even got some Councilmembers running scared.
But that’s the whole point.  The Report Card is intended to shine a spotlight on the environmental records of the Mayor and City Council, so that the public and the voters can demand they do better.
The Environmental Quality Report Card is actually an outgrowth of the Water Quality Report Card that San Diego Coastkeeper published annually, starting in 2001. From year to year, the Water Quality Report Card measured a statistical improvement in voting behavior for City officials, especially if they received a poor grade during their first year on the council.
In 2009, a coalition of environmental organizations adopted Coastkeeper’s report, and expanded it to quantitatively grade city officials on the full spectrum of environmental issues (including water quality). It continues to be our hope that with greater scrutiny, the City of San Diego will produce better environmental policy.
While the Report Card is commissioned by environmental nonprofits, the report is compiled by Strategic Community Consulting, an independent consulting firm staffed by UCSD graduate students at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. The consultants keep the Report Card objective and independent, and they bring to bear considerable rigor to their quantitative analysis of Council grades.
You’ll have to wait for Wednesday to find out how the Council and Mayor scored in 2010.  But I can tell you that the historical trends have continued, and most officials who scored poorly in 2009, improved in 2010. Some improved a lot.  But others have failed to treat conservation as anything more than a buzzword for their campaign mailers.
So stay tuned!  Copies of the 2010 report card will be available online at the website of the League of Conservation Voters after 11 a.m. on April 20, 2011. (
PS:  We’ll also be tweeting about the Report Card before and after its release by using the hash tag #EQRC.

Point Loma Sewage Treatment Facility photographed by Lighthawk and Matthew Meier Photography

Have you seen the 2010 Environmental Quality Report Card for the City of San Diego?  As you can see, one of the success stories last year was the Council’s approach to Indirect Potable Reuse.  This process of water purification recycles wastewater into water so clean that it can augment our reservoirs and help increase our drinking water supplies.

Once the third rail of San Diego politics, water purification became much more palatable at City Hall due to continuing periods of drought and budget shortfalls.  The purification process gives us a local source of water at a time when our imported sources are literally drying up.  A decade ago the process was tagged with the misnomer toilet-to-tap, and written off as politically unpopular.  But science ultimately convinced a majority of council members to revisit reuse. 

There were two important votes in San Diego last year on IPR.  The first, in January, authorized a contract for public outreach and project management of a demonstration project for advanced water purification.   It passed with five councilmember votes and a positive staff report from the Mayor.  The second vote in July actually passed with six votes, authorizing the contract to design and build the demonstration-scale facility.  The test plant will operate at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, where the City will gather data to plan a permanent full-scale project. 

The (not-so) strange part?  Opposition to last year’s votes was almost non-existent.  An unprecedented coalition of more than twenty groups supporting water purification was one reason, public outreach and education was another.  The Union-Tribune’s editorial support this year may have been belated, but it gave one more boost to council members who know that caring about water quality is the right thing in popular and unpopular times.  And for those that did, the Environmental Quality Report Card took note.