How many more exemptions can the failing Point Loma wastewater treatment plant get? Currently, the Point Loma plant in San Diego is the only sewage treatment plant in California that does not comply with the federal Clean Water Act requirement for secondary treatment of sewage. The EPA has granted the Point Loma plant three exemption waivers already so that it can continue dumping 175 million gallons per day of partially treated sewage into the ocean. 1
If that’s not enough to make you rethink ever wanting to swim in our San Diego beaches again, then you were unaware that 15% of that sewage dumped consists of total suspended solids. 2
The harsh truth is that San Diego cannot indefinitely keep obtaining waivers. Sadder yet, is the fact that the Clean Water Act set the secondary treatment requirements in 1972. The city of San Diego has had nearly 40 years to comply with a law that is actually in the people’s best interest. Less sewage flowing out into the ocean means cleaner and safer San Diego beaches. The EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld says that “San Diego has likely received its last waiver of federal Clean Air Act rules for the Point Loma Sewage Treatment Plant.” 3
If the possibility of obtaining waivers is out, why hasn’t the Point Loma treatment plant been upgraded to secondary treatment yet? City officials pin the blame on the $1.5 billion cost required to retrofit Point Loma to secondary treatment. 4 San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders has consistently opposed the upgrade of Point Loma to secondary sewage treatment, saying that the granting of the third exemption was a “victory for all San Diegans.” 5
Another supposed victory was the announcement by the San Diego County Water Authority of the construction of a $2 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad that produces 150 million gallons of fresh water per day. 6 Ironically, the Carlsbad desalination plant plans to use the same reverse osmosis technology that tertiary wastewater treatment requires. Moreover, desalination is largely cost-ineffective in comparison to recycling wastewater. In Orange County, it costs $800-$850 to recycle enough wastewater to support two families of four for a year. 7 The proposed Carlsbad desalination plant has a cost of $1000 to support the same two families for a year. 8
If recycling sewage water is significantly cheaper than desalination, then why is the $2 billion Carlsbad desalination plant being constructed in the first place? The answer is devastatingly simple: the Point Loma Plant is publically funded while the Carlsbad desalination plant is privately funded by investment grade tax exempt bonds. 9 For the same reason, the desalination plant has the support of numerous city officials including Mayor Sanders. On the other hand, the $1.5 billion necessary to upgrade the Point Loma plant will be a cost directly passed on to San Diegans, and is one that will definitely not help the mayor get reelected.
In light of the circumstances, I propose the immediate upgrade of the Point Loma plant not only to secondary treatment, but also to tertiary treatment. Point Loma will eventually be forced to do full secondary treatment, so the $1.5 billion is practically a sunk cost. Tertiary treatment would involve additional steps like microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet ray bombardment, and hydrogen peroxide disinfection. The cost of tertiary treatment upgrades could be financed by bonds in much the same fashion as those financing the Carlsbad desalination plant.
A critic may assert that the costs of desalination and tertiary treatment plants could not be assessed before the actual construction of such plants. Such an argument, however, overlooks the fact that both tertiary and desalination plants have been built in other major cities.
For example, Orange County recently implemented tertiary treatment steps by constructing a $481 million tertiary plant capable of producing 70 million gallons per day of water suitable for drinking. 10 In comparison, the $2 billion Carlsbad desalination plant can only produce 150 million gallons per day. While the price of the desalination plant is four times higher, desalination only produces about twice as much water as the Orange County tertiary recycling plant. Also, as previously mentioned, the actual cost of desalinating each gallon of water is significantly more than tertiary recycling. The math for desalination simply does not add up.
Not only is tertiary wastewater recycling more economically feasible, but tertiary recycling is also more environmentally safe. Desalination takes in seawater and discharges a salty brine that can have devastating impacts on marine life. Tertiary wastewater recycling effectively reroutes the wastewater that would otherwise be dumped into the ocean and creates fresh water in a far more environmentally conscious manner.
Because upgrading the Point Loma plant to secondary and tertiary treatment would be both economically and environmentally favorable, the construction of the Carlsbad desalination plant must stopped.