Cost Estimates Soar for Upgrading City's Sewage Treatment

Times Staff Writer

City officials quietly warned the San Diego City Council this week that tentative cost estimates for upgrading the city's sewage treatment system have sharply increased, with the six options now under consideration, ranging in price from $2.4 billion to $4.2 billion, City Hall sources said Wednesday.

If they hold up under further analysis, the new estimates would reflect an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars over the $1.5-billion to $2.4-billion projection that city officials have been using in discussions of the project during the past year.

The new estimates reflect inflation, a sizable contingency fund and the added cost of water reclamation technology, which the council has committed itself to pursuing, sources said. Water reclamation involves an even more thorough cleaning of waste water than the "secondary sewage treatment" mandated by federal law.

But city officials cautioned that the new estimates are only tentative proposals that have not undergone thorough analysis by the Water Utilities Department and the city's hired consultant. Two sources said final cost estimates, expected to be ready for the March 28 meeting of the Metropolitan Sewer Task Force, could be lower.

No Cost Estimates Completed

Deputy City Manager Roger Frauenfelder, who oversees the upgrading of sewage treatment, said Wednesday that no new cost estimates have been completed.

"There is not a report that shows higher costs. We were going to try to get it together, but it just hasn't happened yet," Frauenfelder said. He said there would be no discussion of costs at a City Council workshop today at which the entire sewage-system upgrading will be reviewed.

But several City Hall sources said staff members shocked council members with cost estimates ranging from $2.4 billion for an option that does not include water reclamation to $4.2 billion for a plan that would pump treated effluent over the Laguna Mountains for agricultural use in the Imperial Valley.

Four other options that differ in varying degrees from the two extremes would cost $2.5 billion to $2.9 billion, the sources said.

The figures were apparently released during a closed-session discussion of the sewer-treatment system upgrading Tuesday. Among the items on the agenda for that meeting was a discussion of the city's legal battle with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. Justice Department and the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, all of which sued the city last July to force it to upgrade to secondary sewage treatment as required by federal law.

Battling for Timetable, Cost

The city has agreed to move to secondary sewage treatment, but is battling the federal agencies over the timetable and the cost. The agencies also want the city to pay fines for 1,814 sewage spills over five years.

The cost of upgrading the sewage treatment system will be borne by the 1.5 million users of the Metropolitan Sewerage System in cities throughout the county. It is unclear how much sewer bills would increase under the new cost estimates, but city officials estimated last year that a $1.5-billion to $2.4-billion upgrade could quadruple sewer users' bills.

The average fee would rise from about $10.40 to nearly $40 a month in the next three to five years, officials said then.

The cost to sewer users could be sharply reduced if Mayor Maureen O'Connor is successful in her efforts to win passage of federal legislation that would pay for 55% of the costs.

Options Down to 7

Consultants have winnowed the city's options from 21 to seven--the six treatment upgradings and a "no-project option" still favored by Councilman Bruce Henderson.

All the options would upgrade the existing Point Loma plant to secondary treatment. Several others involve building more treatment plants in the North City area and the South Bay, along with smaller, satellite plants scattered about the city. Two of the options do not include water reclamation.

Secondary sewage treatment removes 90% of solid waste from raw sewage before it is dumped in the ocean.

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