GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

Helix Water District may close the tap on the El Monte Valley Project

Posted by George J Janczyn on September 4, 2011

This Wednesday September 7 the Helix Water District Board of Directors will consider a staff recommendation to suspend the El Monte Valley Project. The project is a groundwater recharge and recovery operation that would generate 5,000 acre feet of water per year using an advanced recycled water purification process known to water professionals as Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR).

The eastern part of El Monte Valley. El Capitan reservoir and dam are around the bend to the right. The greenery heading down the valley marks the course of the San Diego River. The valley grows considerably wider with distance from the reservoir.

The purification process for potable reuse includes micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and UV disinfection. San Diego is also developing an IPR project through the Water Purification Demonstration Project at the North City Water Reclamation Plant.

The Helix project has (or had) a lot going for it.

Whereas Helix currently meets 3.3% of its demand for water from local resources, the project would increase that figure to 15%. For all practical purposes, it would create a permanent drought-proof water supply for 15,000 families according to the project’s FAQ — and there would be a corresponding decrease in imported water purchases. Wastewater discharges to the Pacific Ocean would also be reduced.

Another project component would be to mine about 12 million tons of sand from the valley over a 10-year period and sell it to to help fund the project. Much of the sand was deposited by the San Diego River which flows through El Monte Valley west of El Capitan Reservoir. The sand would help ease local shortages of Portland Cement Grade Sand. Upon completion of the mining, the valley would be recontoured and reclamation/restoration plans would be implemented for habitat and recreation purposes.

The staff recommendation to suspend the project (initiated by all four district staff directors and signed off on by General Manager Mark Weston) must have been difficult to decide after the considerable time and resources invested, not the least being preparation of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that has been underway for more than a year. Still, to put it simply, the project conditions have changed so much that it no longer seems feasible.


(I’ve drawn heavily from the Board Report that came as part of the agenda package for the meeting. It goes into much more detail than I’ve presented below. Warning: the URL for the package looks like a generic one used for current meetings. It will probably change when it is placed on the Board Packages From Past Meetings page.)

The changed project conditions are:

  • As a partner in the project, the Padre Dam Municipal Water District would build an advanced water treatment facility to purify water from its reclamation facility. Helix would buy the water to recharge the El Monte Valley aquifer. However, severe budgetary pressures forced Padre to make major cuts in workforce and operating expenses and deferrals of capital improvements. Consequently, Phase I of the advanced treatment facilities was deferred for at least four years.
  • Padre would have to charge Helix more for the purified water than originally planned because construction costs for the advanced treatment facility have increased by 30%. Padre might also lose a major subsidy ($250/acre foot) from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) for local recycled water supply projects. MWD is cutting a number of those subsidies in San Diego County in response (some say retaliation) to the lawsuit over MWD’s pricing filed by the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) in June 2010. All told, the price Helix would have to pay has risen from $1200 per acre-foot to about $1850 per acre-foot.
  • The cost of completing the EIR is estimated at $500,000 over the original plan because of additional cultural resources studies found to be needed after discussions with the Viejas and Barona Tribes.
  • Helix customers have reduced their average usage from 143 to 106 gallons per capita per day. The lower demand is seen as giving Helix more time to consider an alternative to the project. It also means less revenue to cover fixed expenses creating pressure to raise prices.
  • There remains litigation over legal and financial issues arising from the failed golf course project that the El Capitan Golf Club, LLC was going to build on a large parcel of El Monte Valley land owned by Helix.

Along with the recommendation to cancel the IPR project is a proposal to pursue Direct Potable Reuse (DPR), presumably with the same output as the IPR project.

R.M. Levy Water Treatment Plant

IPR involves blending purified recycled water with raw imported water and aging it for some six months to a year in an aquifer or large reservoir before sending it to a water treatment plant for distribution to customers.

DPR, on the other hand, blends purified recycled water with imported raw water in a surface reservoir with little or no holding time before it is sent to a finishing water treatment plant and on to the customers.

DPR seems plausible to Helix because a large body of scientific research holds that the quality of purified recycled water is “far superior” to the water imported from the Colorado River or Northern California, and more research continues.

So, the recommendation here is that Helix “seek legislative and/or regulatory revisions to allow advanced treated recycled water through direct potable reuse as a supplemental untreated surface water supply.”

(The quoted portion of the last sentence might translate as: “seek legislative and/or regulatory revisions to allow purified recycled water to be blended with imported raw water in Lake Jennings, with the adjacent R.M. Levy Water Treatment Plant performing final treatment before distribution to customers.“)

Actually there has been some legislation already. In September 2010 Senate Bill 918 was signed into law. As explained in the 2011 WateReuse Research Foundation report Direct potable reuse: a path forward, SB 918 “…mandates that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) adopt uniform water recycling criteria for indirect potable reuse (IPR) for groundwater recharge by the end of 2013. If an expert panel convened pursuant to the bill finds that the criteria for surface water augmentation would adequately protect public health, the development of criteria for surface water augmentation by the end of 2016 is also mandated in the bill. Further, the bill requires CDPH to investigate the feasibility of developing regulatory criteria for DPR…” (emphasis mine).

The Helix Water District Board of Directors will meet at 3:00pm Wednesday, September 7 at 7811 University Avenue in La Mesa.

[Update Sep 7 — the Board indeed voted to suspend the project: Helix news release]


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s