By Lori Saldaña
Are you taking steps to help conserve water in your household? Maybe added low-flow fixtures, or taken out grass, or received rebates from the city for installing rainwater tanks?
If so- congratulations for being part of voluntary solutions! Now it’s time to up your conservation game with some of the new mandatory requirements. An insert was included in water bills this month, advising us that water restrictions started Nov. 1 in San Diego. The city wants us to be sure to follow the dates/times when watering is allowed.
However, because of the city’s billing method, even if you follow these guidelines, it may not impact the actual amount charged on your water bills in any significant way. This is because much of the costs are not for the water coming INTO your house, but for disposing of water after it’s been used and flows OUT of your house.
All those millions of gallons of wastewater from throughout the San Diego region (not just the city itself) need to be pumped, filtered, treated with chemicals and then dumped out to sea a few miles west of Pt. Loma at a rate of hundreds of millions of gallons per day. The costs and treatment levels of this wastwater treatment system have been the subject of multiple lawsuits, federal legislation and exemptions over the years.
While most of the information on this city web page is, as expected, simply glowing with all the great things San Diego has done, it shades the truth on a few points that are worth noting.
The page notes: “In the late 1980s, the City and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were involved in a legal dispute over the requirement to treat sewage at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant to secondary standards. The City prevailed, saving ratepayers an estimated $3 billion. As a result of the ensuing court order…”
Wait. If the city “prevailed,” why was there a court order?
Because the city SETTLED the lawsuit, they didn’t win outright. And they “won” with help from the San Diego Sierra Club, which had started on the side of the EPA, then switched and agreed to support the City’s settlement offer: to do more water reclamation and conservation.
That’s why any time a residential property changes hands, owners are required to install low flow plumbing fixtures. And San Diegans have done an excellent job of conserving.
The court order is also why the city has built the North City Water Reclamation Plant and the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant: they were compelled to, to satisfy the settlement agreement.
Overall this has worked out well. Even though there are now many more residents in the region than when this case went to court, actual water discharge rates into the ocean have declined. So that’s a good thing.
A Grand Alliance
It’s also why the Mayor recently announced a grand alliance with local environmental organizations. According to the city’s November 13 news release announcing this partnership:
“The Pure Water San Diego program is designed to purify enough wastewater to provide one-third of San Diego’s water supply after all three phases are fully operational in 2035. The 20-year capital improvement project calls for the construction of a nearly $2 billion water-purification plant on Harbor Drive and installation of advanced purification at the North City Water Reclamation Plant and the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant. The three facilities would eventually produce 83 million gallons per day.”
So- they are investing in upgrading water treatment to make it clean enough for reuse, rather than pay more to dump cleaner sewage out to sea, (like every other major coastal city in the nation).
Yes, San Diego thrives on being the exception when it comes to wastewater discharge permits. City leaders have traditionally cried “poor” when it comes to treating sewage, but are willing to spend billions when they can build high-tech, state of the art water purification facilities and deliver “pure” (vs. lower-quality “reclaimed”) water for various industries.
This presumably also allows them to “grow” and offer incentives to new businesses who may want to move here and use that “pure” water. Unfortunately, this “business friendly” incentive has also been abused.
In the mid-90s, the city waived new water hook-up fees for large industrial users, and then passed on the true costs of these hook-ups to individual ratepayers. This was illegal, and in violation of their agreement with the EPA to qualify for Clean Water Act funds which are intended to subsidize small, low income users of certain wastewater programs.
(For details, see the 2006 Kroll report, “Parties Responsible for Violation of Law: Wastewater.” This section reported that City staff and elected officials had engaged in some serious illegal acts to accomplish this “Business friendly” price scheme.)
So, in the end, who really uses this treatment system and who pays for it?
Over 2 million people throughout the county, not just San Diego city residents, use this system. Most of the costs are shared, more or less, between these cities. There are 16 cities in the County that send their sewage for treatment to three facilities, from the border of Mexico to North City, near Miramar Road and the main facility on Pt. Loma.
In fact, it is the pumping, cleaning, maintenance and treatment of wastewater that costs the average water user in the San Diego far more than the actual water they consume before dumping it down the drain.
What Other Cities Do
Other cities manage water very differently than San Diego. To the south, in Tijuana, water and wastewater agencies are combined, and are aiming for 100% reclamation and reuse of water. They have leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds from both Mexican agencies and the US Environmental Protection Agency to help them achieve these goals.
(Why can’t San Diego take advantage of these funds? That’s a whole other article.)
North of us, in Orange County, they have been doing something called “indirect potable reuse” for many years, by adding treated water back into aquifers to be mixed with groundwater. However, San Diego doesn’t have the same underground supplies, and when this concept was first introduced in San Diego it was ridiculed and called “toilet to tap.” It’s taken over a decade of re-branding for this to be reconsidered as locals get over the “yuck” factor, as most people don’t consider that we already drink water that’s been through other municipal systems on the way to San Diego from the Colorado River.
So- knowing first hand about all these lawsuits, and settlement-linked programs, and related costs- over the last few years my family has invested hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, and considerable ingenuity to reduce our water usage. And because we took many of these actions before the city subsidized them, they were done without rebates for the rainwater tanks etc. (but these are now available for others who want to add them).
When I review the bill, it appears the city has nearly doubled the sewer service charges (from $10.62 to $20.56) on residential users. The result: even though we used about HALF the water vs. prior years, this sewer charge increase erased most of the financial savings, since water is relatively inexpensive.
These fixed costs don’t pencil out for families who are using LESS water and disposing so much less into the sewer capacity and treatment.
More importantly: how is that an economic INCENTIVE for others to conserve water at all?
And It seems absurd to raise the sewer rates, when most of the water that comes into the average home never goes ito the sewer- (remember: it’s estimated that 50% goes into landscaping: gardens, grass, trees, etc.)
But- historically, the city has charged more to DISPOSE of water than to CONSUME water. And now they are telling San Diegans: prepare for water prices to increase and reflect the ‘true costs” which previously have been concealed by subsidies.
Don’t get me wrong: I agree the costs of all finite resources should be priced in a fair, transparent matter (especially “fossil fuels”). And the County Water Authority’s PR machine is going into overdrive to educate San Diegans about the true water costs and our various “new” options for water (desal, reclamation etc.)
But focusing on the “true costs” of water misses the point, and may actually remove the incentive for others to reduce water consumption. Because, if they read their bill- it appears conserving doesn’t matter. What matters is not water USE per se, but the mere fact of being attached to the Pt. Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant at the other end of the pipe.
Also, there are those who employ the “Lexus lane” mentality, as evidenced by the “FastPass” lanes on the freeways: if you really want the benefit of using the high occupancy vehicle lane, sans occupants: just pay more.
Some might ask: why should water be any different? If I can pay more for water, which is relatively cheap, I will- and it won’t even impact those fixed sewage discharge fees.
In fact, all this belated transparency about the costs of our water may obfuscate the real issues impacting these mandatory conservation measures: It’s not money, it’s climate change, drought, and a general lack of water in the southwest. Perhaps that’s why Prop. 1 passed?
So- while I agree it’s important to educate San Diegans about water conservation, and perhaps even compel us to use less, it’s shallow to define this as simply a financial issue. The City and the County Water Authority need to add a few lessons on lawsuits, permitting battles, drought and climate change to the mix.