Council Votes to Abide by U. S. Sewage Order

Times Staff Writer

Despite the vocal protests of Councilman Bruce Henderson, the San Diego City Council on Wednesday reaffirmed in no uncertain terms its commitment to abide by a federal mandate and undertake a $1.5-billion secondary-sewage treatment project.

Mayor Maureen O’Connor as well as the city’s Metropolitan Sewer Task Force said it was imperative that the City Council once and for all make its position clear and lay to rest the controversy about whether the city would again seek a waiver from the federal Clean Water Act.

E. Harvey Miles, chairman of the task force, noted that some City Council members have continued to contact members of the California congressional delegation about the city’s sewage predicament. As a result, he said, the City Council has presented a divided front and created confusion about its position.

From now on, Miles urged, the city must present a “united front” to avoid confusion, not only among government officials but the public as well.


Under the federal Clean Water Act, all U. S. cities were required to upgrade their treatment capacities to secondary, which removes 85% to 90% of solids from effluent, by July 1. The city’s current “advanced primary” system removes 75% of the solids.

San Diego and 422 other U. S. cities--all of them smaller--failed to meet the July 1 deadline. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Regional Water Quality Control Board sued the city for failing to comply.

Wrong Conclusion

The city got into its bind because, for seven years, it wrongly concluded that the EPA would exempt it permanently from the federal sewage standards. City officials say San Diego cannot hope to have a secondary-treatment system working before the turn of the century and would have to spend $1.5 billion or more to do so, a prospect that could quadruple the cost of monthly bills for the region’s 1.5 million sewer users. O’Connor and city officials hope to convince the federal government to help pay for the new system.


Henderson has been the most outspoken opponent of the city’s plan to move to secondary treatment. He maintains that there is no proof the ocean around the Point Loma outfall is polluted, and, he said Wednesday at a special council workshop to discuss the sewage issue, he is convinced that the final price tag may reach $2.5 billion. If that occurs, it could mean a yearly residential bill of $2,100, Henderson said, based on his own figures.

Should that happen, he said, some resident would be faced with the question “Can I feed my children or pay my sewer bill?” Henderson called on the city to reapply for a federal waiver and for the city to hold a symposium of scientists to discuss the environmental quality of the ocean off San Diego.

“This is one of the saddest days in the history of San Diego . . . (we’re about to) flush $2.5 billion down the (toilet).”

Response by Mayor


But in an impassioned response, the mayor said the city had the legal obligation to meet the federal law, and that it is clear to her, based on scientific evidence, that the water off Point Loma is becoming increasingly polluted.

“You keep bringing up scare tactics,” said O’Connor forcefully. “No one knows it will be $2.5 billion.”

“We’re one of the few major cities that (have) not complied with the law . . . we made a mistake back” in 1981 by applying for a waiver and then not planning in the event the waiver was denied.

“I’m a San Diegan, and I’m not personally going to allow our ocean to become a sewer,” the mayor said, adding that it is foolhardy for Henderson or others to believe that Congress would change the Clean Water Act to keep San Diego from building a second-stage treatment capacity. In a vote that, among other things, reaffirmed the city’s position, Henderson was the lone opponent against the position. Absent were council members Bob Filner, Ed Struiksma and Abbe Wolfsheimer.


In related action, the council said it would try to whittle the number of alternative treatment systems to six as soon as possible. More important, it said that any system finally approved would have to be based on a major water reclamation component. Putting some muscle behind that decision, a council committee earlier in the day endorsed a proposal that the city manager hire a reclamation czar who would provide the city with expertise about reclamation technology and help the city manager’s office coordinate reclamation efforts as planning for a secondary system goes forward.

The city also said it will continue to seek a delay from the EPA of as much as 39 months to allow the city to adequately plan for the massive sewage project.