Dismissed only a few years ago by residents of California's second-largest city, San Diego is joining other California cities that are taking a closer look at recycling wastewater for drinking as the state suffers from severe drought.
The City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday to advance a plan to produce 83 million gallons of recycled water a day by 2035, an estimated one-third of the city's water supply. The plan enjoys broad support, including from Mayor Kevin Faulconer and major environmental groups.
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The Orange County Water District, which serves 2.4 million people in Southern California and has recycled wastewater for drinking since 2008, is boosting production to 100 million gallons a day from 70 million. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves 1.8 million people in the San Francisco Bay area, decided in September to pursue construction of facilities that it says could lead to turning wastewater to drinking water for the city of Sunnyvale and western Santa Clara County.
San Diego, a city of 1.4 million people that imports 85 percent of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California, has slowly warmed to the idea in its quest to become more independent and protected from drought. A 2011 survey by the San Diego County Water Authority showed more than two of three residents favored turning wastewater into drinking water, up from one of four in a 2005 survey.
The city's hand is forced partly because its main wastewater treatment plant fails to meet federal standards for dumping into the ocean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted a waiver every five years since 1995, with the latest one set to expire in July.
The council will decide whether to ratify an agreement between the mayor and four environmental groups — San Diego Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and San Diego Audubon Society — to ask the EPA for another reprieve and commit to the recycled water plan.
"Things were coming to a head," said Brent Eidson, spokesman for the city's public utilities department. "(The drought) really just brought more awareness."