Thinking about San Diego’s IPR water project
Posted by George J Janczyn on July 12, 2010
On Jan. 26, 2010, the San Diego City Council directed the Mayor to execute an agreement between the City of San Diego and RMC Water and Environment, to perform the project management and public outreach for the Indirect Potable Reuse Reservoir Augmentation Project, recently renamed the Water Purification Demonstration Project.
As long as we’re still waiting for official outreach on the subject, here are some things that could probably use some early discussion. First a brief history.
Faced with the fact that 90% of San Diego County’s demand for water must be satisfied by importing it from hundreds of miles away in the Colorado River and Northern California, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) looked for ways to reduce its dependence on outside sources. The region was facing possible cutbacks in water allocations from the Colorado River, supplies from Northern California were at risk not only from periodic droughts but from complicated state-wide legal, political, and environmental constraints — not to mention a vast costly infrastructure that required constant maintenance and was vulnerable to damage from earthquakes or other disasters — and there was a growing population driving new development which required more water.
Among the possibilities SDCWA looked at were seawater desalination, potential new groundwater resources, water conservation, water transfers from other agencies, water recycling, and water reuse.
To address one of these fronts, SDCWA decided on a project that would perform a feasibility study for a water purification project that would take tertiary-treated water from the City of San Diego’s North City Water Reclamation Plant, and purify it with advanced techniques (micro filtration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet radiation, and peroxide conditioning).
Tests had shown that the resulting purified water exceeded federal and state drinking water standards. In other words, it was higher in quality than the raw water we import.
The plan was to use the purified water to augment the raw imported water supply at San Vicente Reservoir. The water would remain in detention for at least six months per regulation, and then as with all raw imported water, it would go the normal route to a potable water treatment plant and be delivered to customers.
It seemed like a great project: it would reduce the amount of water we needed to purchase elsewhere, it would supply us with high quality drinking water, it was was more reliable because it wasn’t subject to disruptions in water supply lines delivering imported water, and it was virtually drought-proof.
Is this the Water Purification Demonstration Project mentioned above? Not exactly. It describes a project from 1993.
What ever happened to that project?
The project started out well enough. SDCWA was fairly successful in promoting it, they were backed up by public water quality and safety regulators, and the public seemed receptive to the idea. By 1998 the North City Water Reclamation Plant had been built and was ready to start producing tertiary water. Next, the advanced treatment facilities and the pipeline to deliver the purified water to the San Vicente reservoir needed final approval and funding by the City of San Diego. That never happened.
Instead, a combination of factors led to a loss of support for the project. It wasn’t exactly killed, but it sort of went into hibernation. Some of those factors are discussed a bit further down.
The project was more or less dormant until it was revived by the City Council in 2007, with a vote to override the Mayor’s veto.
Lately the project has been showing new signs of life, which brings us back to the January 26, 2010 approval for the project management and public outreach contract. Again it was time to contract out the advanced purification facility.
That contract was temporarily stalled in committee, but finally was sent on to the City Council, which will soon consider it. But the project still faces significant hurdles. For one thing, there remains stubborn resistance from several city councilmembers (especially DeMaio and Lightner) who have opposed the concept from the beginning.
So, there’s a risk that the current project will end up like the original one. Aside from knee-jerk rejection, many issues that caused the original project to fail probably also threaten the upcoming project (I’ll use IPR Project for short). So let’s take a look at some of them, in no particular order.
- Just as with the project of the 90s, we’ve endured serious drought conditions for several years now. And just as in our current situation, the 90s project also eventually had a good rainy season that brought near-normal or better-than-normal rainfall amounts. In both cases some people reverted to a feeling that shortages and reliability issues were only short-term, transient problems. The need for the IPR Project didn’t feel as pressing anymore.
- Nearly all our water comes from far away and the supply from those locations is not assured. Just because we’re getting a certain amount of imported water now doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to stay that way. Numerous legal and environmental constraints make it a lot less secure than that. Or an earthquake could cause levee failure in the California Delta or damage the Colorado River Aqueduct, cutting the supply outright for an unknown period of time, possibly more than six months.
- The fact that advanced treatment produces water of superior quality has not been emphasized. Instead, there is still a common perception that water quality is degraded by the IPR process. Unfortunately, this negative perception is strengthened by the government regulatory requirement that IPR-treated water must be aged in a reservoir for a certain period of time before it can be used. There’s really no need for that — the rule is simply a bow to the “yuck factor” and the public’s perception that aging will “naturally” improve water quality.
- There are questions about trace levels of pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in the water, but these questions assume it’s a problem with IPR Project water. In truth those contaminants have been found in ALL of our water. If anything, the advanced purification from the IPR Project should alleviate some of those concerns. In fact, we might well consider using IPR processes to treat our entire water supply. In any case, we should give credit to the IPR Project for getting people to look more closely at water quality issues in general.
- An authoritative agency needs to be recognized as the last word on water quality. In the 90s project, it was the Wastewater Department that often took the lead in promoting the project and handling water quality questions, but people found it difficult to associate them with water quality. The San Diego Water Department would be a more logical agency for this. They are, after all, responsible for the ozonation process being implemented at the Alvarado Water Treatment Plant in order to improve water quality and safety.
- The North City Water Reclamation Plant was originally built because the EPA required it as a condition for granting the city a waiver from providing secondary treatment at its Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. Since the IPR Project gets tertiary water from that plant it is sometimes seen as solving a wastewater discharge problem, not addressing a water supply issue.
- Even though nearly all of our water is imported, somehow people don’t feel that’s a major problem. Perhaps it’s because the invisible infrastructure has worked so well. Still, it needs to be better communicated that the import system is not nearly as secure and reliable as it’s perceived to be and the more we can develop local alternatives, the better.
- Many people say instead of doing IPR, the city should expand the use of recycled water for use in irrigation and industry. However, they may not understand that the cost and complications of separate purple pipe infrastructure are not trivial, requiring many new pipelines for delivery to different areas and separate plumbing at each location for watering the landscape. IPR water is simply delivered through existing pipes.
- It has not been effectively communicated that San Diego is already doing “unplanned” IPR. We import Colorado River water which contains treated wastewater from upstream sources including Las Vegas. Why are people okay with that water being treated only once at a standard water treatment plant, but feel nervous about IPR water that gets layers of advanced purification before reaching the standard water treatment plant?
- Costs have been poorly explained. People need to know how the IPR Project will affect their water rate. It’s also very confusing because IPR Project expenses are mingled between the Water Department and the Wastewater Department. More effort should go into explaining costs.
- It will be a large problem that the producers of the wastewater (affluent north county) will not be the users (not-so-affluent west-central neighborhoods). As one study of the 90s project noted, “none of the project leaders, experts, or visible proponents could say that the water would be going to their home.”
- The amount of water to be produced by the project — 16 million gallons per day (MGD) — has been criticized as being not enough to make a difference. This may be a good point. The upcoming Poseidon desalination plant will produce 50 MGD. Perhaps the IPR Project should aim for a similar amount.
- Not enough has been publicized about the success of other IPR projects in the state, country, and world, so there is still a widespread impression locally that San Diego would be doing something brand new and untested.
- Some people perceive that alternatives being pursued, such as desalination and water transfers from Imperial Valley, are sufficient for our needs. They suspect IPR project supporters are advocating the project, not addressing a real need. But recall, among the possibilities for reducing dependence on imported water and having a more reliable supply of water, SDCWA looked at seawater desalination, potential new groundwater resources, water conservation, water transfers from other agencies, water recycling, and water reuse. The truth is that no single avenue is enough; in San Diego’s position every single one of those things needs to be exploited just to make a small reduction in our dependence on imports.
- The project will have to contend with negative labels that are used, especially by the news media. San Diego’s largest newspaper was opposed to the original project and blocked positive stories about it. Most local news media still commonly refer to IPR as “toilet-to-tap” (or they might pretend to be diplomatic and write “often referred to by opponents as toilet-to-tap”). One local news outlet uses the term recycled sewage instead of a more neutral term or even the correct name. When I called them out for putting the process in a derogatory light, their reporter insisted that “proponents need to embrace that fact, otherwise it seems like they’re trying to hide a basic fact.” Project leaders will have to develop good media relations and strive to limit such negative press.
- A project’s name should never contain a suggestion that it’s inferior, and it’s always better to highlight the finished product rather than the raw materials that go into the production. Therefore, the new name Water Purification Demonstration Project is a big improvement over Indirect Potable Reuse Reservoir Augmentation Demonstration Project. It conveys a positive image and it’s true.
What the IPR Project needs is for some one or some organization to really own it. Activity can’t be allowed to be fragmented and uncoordinated. City Council members have their own agendas; infighting and posturing is common. The Mayor publicly praises water recycling efforts but privately has no wish to see IPR succeed. An informal coalition of people with business, environmental, and other interests are attempting to gather support but organized activity has been limited.
The San Diego Public Utilities Water Department obviously supports the project, but getting information about the project takes persistent effort and insider knowledge. You have to know what question needs to be asked and you have to know who to ask.
The San Diego County Water Authority should not be quietly supportive, they should be actively promoting the project.
You can probably see that this project raises important questions that many people are going to disagree about. That means we must have a transparent and understandable communications process, and the process should welcome controversy and dissent and the free sharing of information. Let’s hope the planned public outreach will be up to the challenge.
[One very informative resource I found for writing this post was Best Practices for Developing Online Potable Reuse Projects from the WateReuse Foundation. It’s worth buying a copy]