San Diego seeks to get past 'yuck factor' with drought-driven plan to recycle wastewater

Acknowledging California's parched new reality, the city of San Diego has embraced a once-toxic idea: turning sewer water into drinking water.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to advance a $2.5-billion plan to recycle wastewater, the latest example of how California cities are looking for new supplies amid a severe drought.

Each of the nine council members effusively praised the effort before the vote as a way to make San Diego less dependent on imported water and insulated from drought.

"We're at the end of the pipeline," said Councilman Scott Sherman. "We have a real problem getting water down here."

Such recycling, called toilet-to-tap by critics, has suffered an image problem that industry insiders call "the yuck factor."

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. A 2012 survey by the San Diego County Water Authority showed that nearly three of four residents favored turning wastewater into drinking water, a major shift from one of four in a 2005 survey.

"The drought puts a finer point on why this is so necessary," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. "Droughts are unfortunately a way of life in California, so we have to be prepared. This helps us to control our own destiny."

The plan calls to initially recycle 15 million gallons by 2023 and 83 million gallons a day by 2035, about one-third of the city's water supply. It enjoys broad support from business groups and environmental advocates.

The Orange County Water District, which serves 2.4 million people in California, plans to boost production of recycled water next year from 70 million gallons to 100 million gallons a day. It has reused wastewater for drinking since 2008 through treatment that includes sending water through ground basins.

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 into drinking water for Sunnyvale and western Santa Clara County.

Still, it remains rare to turn sewage to drinking water. The WateReuse Association, a group of agencies behind the efforts, counts only 10 projects nationwide, including El Paso, Texas, and Fairfax County, Virginia. Two Texas cities, Wichita Falls and Big Spring, started projects within the past two years.

On Tuesday, the San Diego council ratified 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 Environmental Protection Agency for another reprieve and to commit to the recycled wastewater plan. Unlike Orange County, San Diego plans to send water through a reservoir because it lacks groundwater basins.

Richard Nagel, general manger of the West Basin Municipal Water District, which serves about 900,000 people in Southern California, said he has fielded inquiries from about a half-dozen agencies lately who are interested in recycling wastewater. His agency began in 1995 in response to an earlier drought.

"It's the investment you make for a locally produced, drought-proof water supply," he said.