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House OKs bill that would give San Diego long-sought relief on Point Loma sewer discharge rules

A plant tech supervisor walks through the Pure Water demonstration facility in San Diego last year.
David Mills, a senior plant tech supervisor, walks through the membrane filtration columns at the Pure Water demonstration facility in San Diego last year.
(File)

New Pure Water recycling program could help the city avoid a costly, time-consuming approval process.

San Diego is one step closer to federal legislation that would save taxpayers millions by essentially exempting the city from having to get a Clean Water Act waiver every five years for the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The House of Representatives voted 395-4 last week in favor of legislation that supporters say is game-changing. The bill, called the Ocean Pollution Reduction Act II, still must be approved by the Senate and then signed by the president.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-La Jolla) said this week that overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill in the House makes him optimistic it will sail through the Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump in coming days.

The legislation would replace the city’s complex and expensive federal waiver application for the Point Loma plant with a much simpler process. That could end years of wrangling over the waiver among federal officials, environmental groups and the city.

If federal officials ever deny the waiver and force San Diego to upgrade the plant, the cost could exceed $2 billion, city officials say.

The Clean Water Act requires most water agencies to treat sewage twice before releasing into a bay, an ocean or another body of water.

San Diego officials have argued that the city shouldn’t have to meet the Clean Water Act’s requirements for a “secondary” treatment of sewage at the Point Loma plant for two main reasons.

The city uses a tube called an “outfall” to discharge the treated sewage 4½ miles into the ocean, where it can be dispersed enough to have minimal impact on wildlife.

And San Diego is spending roughly $5 billion to build a sewage recycling system that will provide one-third of the city’s water supply by 2035. That system, called Pure Water, will reduce daily discharge from Point Loma by 100 million gallons, officials say.

To become exempt from secondary treatment and be eligible for the simplified federal waiver, San Diego must demonstrate that Pure Water can deliver on its promises and sharply reduce discharge from Point Loma.

“This bill replaces the complex and expensive secondary treatment waiver application with a simpler and more effective process if the city meets stringent water recycling milestones,” Peters said Nov. 24 at a news conference at San Diego’s main Pure Water plant, just east of La Jolla.

Construction of the system is expected to kick into high gear in 2021.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer called the federal bill a “pivotal piece of legislation” that would help solidify the city’s water independence.

“This bill delivers a really innovative solution to one of our city’s most complex dilemmas by simplifying the permitting process to operate the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant,” the mayor said. “The regulatory certainty that this bill delivers is an absolute game-changer.”

Peters and Faulconer emphasized at the news conference that the legislation would not weaken the Clean Water Act, modify any other federal environmental rules or change any state regulations.

Jerry Sanders, chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, hailed the legislation as good for business and the environment.

“This is a great solution that makes a lot of sense for everybody,” Sanders said. It would be a relief for business leaders to stop worrying about Point Loma’s federal waiver, he added. “This gives business certainty, and business needs certainty to thrive.”

Environmental groups also support the bill.

“This legislation is a critical step in ensuring significant reduction of wastewater discharges into our ocean environment,” said Matt O’Malley, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “Pure Water will provide climate resilience for our city and region, ensuring water security in the face of a changing climate and increasing pressures on our existing water supplies.”

Over the years, San Diego has secured multiple waivers for the Point Loma plant, which began operations 57 years ago — nine years before the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla have long said that investing billions of dollars to upgrade the Point Loma plant would waste taxpayer money because of the 4½-mile outfall and because the plant already conducts relatively advanced treatment.

But a federal exemption has been elusive for San Diego, partly because of objections from other cities that have had to upgrade their sewage treatment plants.

Peters said he thinks a key to gaining strong bipartisan support this time has been recent progress on Pure Water.

“It’s matured, it’s proven itself and now we know we can depend on it,” he said.


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