GrokSurf's San Diego

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

San Diego gets “B” grades from ASCE on its water and wastewater infrastructure

Posted by George J Janczyn on May 15, 2012

I recently came across a news release (New Report Shows San Diego’s Infrastructure Needs Attention) from the San Diego Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) announcing an updated 2012 San Diego County Infrastructure Report Card evaluating a wide variety of regional infrastructure topics including valuable perspective where water matters are concerned.

Although San Diego’s County’s overall grade declined slightly from ASCE’s 2005 report card, the water and wastewater grades have shown some improvement with two Bs and a B+.

The chart on the right compares the grades between the 2005 and 2012 reports:

To produce the report, the ASCE Report Card Team assembled 11 working teams of over 100 expert engineers from the public and private sector to spend a year assessing San Diego’s infrastructure in a variety of categories: aviation, bridges, land and sea ports of entry, levees/flood control/urban drainage, parks/recreation/environment, K-12 school facilities, solid waste, surface transportation, wastewater/collection system, wastewater/treatment, and water.

San Diego’s management of water and wastewater (and associated costs) has been a growing topic of public and political discussion lately, especially as the election season progresses. One mayoral candidate in particular has continuously criticized the Public Utilities Department and reportedly would like to see the entire operation privatized. The County Water Authority’s lawsuit against the Metropolitan Water District on water prices, developments in the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) lawsuit, and Councilmember Lightner’s recently adopted new water policy for the city are other examples of topics that have been regularly in the news, although often in a sensational way.

Objective, non-political information has been difficult to find. The ASCE Report Card helps put lots of these issues in sober perspective.

Following the break are report summaries for each grade given, followed by excerpts from the more detailed discussion further in the report.

B | Wastewater/Collection System

“Wastewater collections systems include gravity pipelines, pump stations, and
pressurized pipelines also known as forcemains. Overall, the condition of the wastewater
collection systems in the San Diego region showed a marked improvement from the
last Infrastructure Report Card in 2005. The collection systems are generally in good
condition, however, portions of the systems remain in fair condition. The primary impetus behind this improvement was an unprecedented and sweeping regulation in California that required wastewater collection agencies to proactively maintain, replace, and fund necessary collection system improvements. The fact that the condition of wastewater collection systems has improved over the past seven years is a very positive trend.”

“From a public policy perspective, it is important that policy makers recognize that, as wastewater collection systems age, the replacement of this vital infrastructure requires continual attention. Recent history has shown that routinely maintaining and replacing wastewater collection system infrastructure is a much more cost-effective and better use of increasingly scarce public dollars than waiting for infrastructure to fail. As such, ASCE strongly encourages policy makers to continue to make tough decisions pertaining to rate adjustments, grant funding, etc., to adequately fund the replacement of this infrastructure before it fails.”

B+ | Wastewater Treatment

“Wastewater treatment and water recycling facilities in San Diego County are well
managed and consistently meet or exceed state and federal regulations. Long-term
asset management plans are in place, regional cooperation is high, and infrastructure
investment over the past decade is paying dividends in the form of fewer wastewater
spills, cleaner beaches, increased production and consumption of recycled water, and
acceptance of wastewater as a valuable commodity. Current programs are adequately
funded in general, however, additional public and private investment will be required to
maintain compliance and to achieve an appropriate level of resource recover energy and
other resources”

B | Water

“The water category includes water supply, potable water supply systems, potable
treatment plants, potable water distribution systems, and recycled water distribution
systems. The condition and capacity of water agency treatment and distributions systems
varies among agencies, but in general they are considered good. There is much to
be positive about in the outlook for water in San Diego; however, there is much to be
concerned about. The region’s focus on diversifying its water supply portfolio over the
last 15 years has been successful, but there is more that needs to be done. Long-term
reliability of our traditional imported water supplies is threatened by environmental issues, climate change, and competing needs. Although agencies have assessed the condition and capacity of their infrastructure as generally good, they have identified replacement and rehabilitation as a high priority to maintain service reliability. The challenge agencies face currently and in the future are managing water rates while balancing capital project funding needs against rapidly rising cost of water supplies, regulatory requirements, and economic cycles.”


Here are some selected excerpts from the detailed discussions on water in the report (pages 81-91):

Sewer spills

“Within San Diego County, 47 agencies own, operate, and maintain more than 7,000 miles of collection system pipes and associated pump stations and force mains. The wastewater committee submitted surveys to all agencies and received responses representing 23 agencies with an aggregate total of more than 6,200 miles of pipelines and 206 pump stations, which represents almost 90% of the system in the region. The respondents had a combined average of 91 sanitary sewer overflows (SSO’s) per year for the past five years. This averages to about 1.5 SSO’s per 100 miles of pipe, well below the industry average of two SSO’s per 100 miles for a well performing agency.”

Public involvement is an important ingredient in a well-run wastewater management
system. Use the websites operated by these agencies to find announcements and agenda
listings. Many agencies provide a free subscription service that sends updates and
agendas automatically to your inbox. When important projects and budget matters are
under consideration by the decision-makers, your voice in front of the body or conveyed
through written comments is a powerful and meaningful part of the public policy making

Wastewater treatment

“Wastewater treatment operations in San Diego County are dominated by multi-agency partnerships known in government parlance as joint powers agencies or JPAs. Excepting two cities and the United States Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the remainder and vast majority of wastewater treatment services in the county are provided through JPAs. JPAs can provide economies of scale that cities and special district often cannot achieve on their own.”

Water recycling facilities

“WRF’s in San Diego [have the capacity to] treat and recycle 40 MGD, an amount equal to approximately 124 acre-feet (AF) of water each day. Since an AF of water is enough to meet a family of four’s household potable water demand for a year, San Diego WRFs produce enough water each year to supply over 45,000 households – or roughly 6% of the county’s population. However, a significant volume of the recycled water produced in San Diego is not used to supplant potable water and county WRFs possess over twenty-three (23) MGD in unused capacity.”

Wastewater treatment plants

“Respondents consistently reported a high degree of confidence in: the capacity of their facilities to meet the public’s need both now and in the future; and, in the effectiveness of their operations and maintenance programs.

While all the respondents reported having some form of long-term comprehensive asset management program to ensure assets are repaired or replaced in accordance to established criteria, they expressed less confidence in their ability to appropriately fund future operating and capital improvement programs as planned.”


“There is much to be positive about in the outlook for water in the San Diego region. The SDCWA has secured new imported water supplies through a long-term (45-75 years) water conservation and transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District. The deal, reached in 2003, provided 70,000 acre-feet of highly reliable Colorado River water in 2010 and increases to 200,000 acre-feet annually in 2021. The SDCWA also has a separate, 110-year agreement to receive Colorado River water conserved by lining parts of the Coachella and All-American canals. These projects provide 80,000 acre-feet of water to the region.

In recent years, a conservation ethic has been established that many believe is

There is, however, much to be concerned about. Water rates have been steadily
increasing and are likely to do so at least in the near future. In the current economy, the ratepayer has become a lot more cognizant of how much they are paying for water and
are often pushing back at public hearings where rate increases are being considered. The
budgets of water agencies will be a significant challenge in the years to come. In respect to infrastructure, the chief concern is the replacement and rehabilitation of distribution systems. Many agencies are still challenged with replacing cast iron water mains which have been found to be the primary reason for the failures of piping systems. Replacing these types of pipelines has proven to be a costly need. The last concern that needs to be emphasized is the challenge of water supply in the region. While the region is increasing its ability to store water locally, it is highly dependent on water from either the Colorado River or northern California both of which face ongoing challenges.”

Water rates

“Water rates in San Diego County have been increasing. The reasons for this are twofold.
First of all, the cost of purchasing imported water from MWD has increased due to
the reduction in allocation of low-cost Colorado River water resulting in more reliance on higher cost water from the State Water Project. At the same time, the allocation of State Water Project water has been reduced to mitigate environmental concerns in the Bay
Delta. Secondly, the recent drought and regulatory restrictions in the Bay-Delta have
drastically reduced water deliveries from the State Water Project and the Colorado River
increasing unit cost of water to fund fixed infrastructure costs. It is expected that water rates will continue to rise to support infrastructure, new water supplies, and decreasing water sales due to conservation.”

What you can do

“As a region, we have been successful in water conservation. Urban and agriculture water users have reduced their combined consumption by 23%. However, likely population growth, more demands on our external water supplies, and new state law will require us to increase conservation even more. Citizens can also keep up on all of the policy discussions that decision makers are having and participate. In the near future decisions will be made regarding water reclamation, desalination, water rates, and infrastructure replacement; all of which will have an impact on all of us. Much can be learned just by reviewing the agendas of city councils and boards or visiting the websites of your local water agency or water department. San Diego has an arid climate, and water issues will always play an important role in the development of public policy that dictate the future of the region.”

I didn’t find anything in the report about the City of San Diego’s Indirect Potable Reuse project (aka Water Purification Demonstration Project) but that’s clearly another initiative that water users should strive to stay informed about because of its positive role in improving water supply reliability and its relationshiop with wastewater treatment, recycling, and conservation.

The above quoted excerpts have been reprinted with the kind permission of Larry Pierce, the Chair of the ASCE Report Card Team, and Dean Gibson, the President of the San Diego Section of ASCE.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire 2012 San Diego County Infrastructure Report Card posted on the ASCE website.


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