Scientists claiming that poorly treated sewage poses no ecological harm to local marine life. Bureaucrats claiming that their sewage treatment system has a spotless record despite a long history of major sewage spills. The mayor claiming that the large city deserves a waiver from the full secondary treatment requirements of the 1972 Clean Water Act because of the prohibitive cost of environmental compliance.
Los Angeles circa 1985? Nope.
San Diego from the grunge period of the early ‘90s? Nope.
Try today’s San Diego — the city that the Clean Water Act forgot.
On Thursday, in a classic demonstration of the politics of pollution, the Coastal Commission voted 8-4 to reverse its 8-1 August vote that determined that San Diego’s application for yet another 301h waiver was inconsistent with the Coastal Act.
Fewer than 60 days later, with absolutely no new information, the commission decided that the discharge of 100% advanced primary treated water poses no risk to marine life. (Advanced primary means chemicals added to enhance solids removal.) Talk about reversal of fortune.
San Diego saved $1.5 billion yesterday. Unlike the early 1990s, this time it didn’t take a Newt Gingrich correction day action or even an act of God that caused the destruction of its old 2.5 mile outfall (immediately replaced with a 4.5 mile outfall that started polluting a new part of the ocean floor). All it took was a really effective lobbying effort by the city.
Support for the waiver by the Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Coastkeeper and the Sierra Club added an unusual twist to the proceedings. Their support wasn’t borne out of nostalgia to keep sewage treatment at the Third World level.
No, their support hinged on an agreement with San Diego to complete a comprehensive water recycling study with recommendations to be completed in the next two years. Heal the Bay agrees that aggressive water recycling is a major solution to San Diego’s water quality and water supply problems. However, the environmental agreement with San Diego did not include a city commitment to actually implement the recommendations of the plan.
The Coastal Commission missed a great opportunity to make San Diego accountable for their public promises to aggressively move towards water recycling. Despite Heal the Bay and the NRDC’s opposition to the 301h waiver, we gave the commission an out by asking for a conditional approval that required San Diego to reduce their pollutant loads from Point Loma to the equivalent of full compliance with full secondary. They could meet the condition by a establishing a moderately aggressive water recycling program to reduce the amount of sewage going to Point Loma.
Instead, the Commission “ordered” the city to come back in two years after the completion of the water recycling study, report on the findings, and tell them which recommendations, if any, that San Diego will commit to.
Before the commission approved the milquetoast requirement, they pressed Mayor Jerry Sanders on a firm commitment to water recycling. The mayor responded by refusing to even provide a water recycling goal, let alone an enforceable commitment to recycle a certain amount of wastewater by a firm date.
So the song remains the same.
San Diego, unlike Los Angeles County, Orange County and the Inland Empire, still refuses to embrace water recycling as an integral solution to our growing water crisis. Public statements are easy to make, but following through on sewage treatment plant upgrades and construction of new water recycling facilities and paying for them is something completely different.
The commission had the chance to make San Diego accountable to its stated commitment to water recycling and a clean ocean. But it chose to give a mulligan to the city, which always seems to be in the midst of some fiscal crisis. As a result, San Diego will continue to have the dubious distinction as the only major city in America that refuses to go to full secondary.