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Paying to Upgrade Treatment System : Sewer Bills Seen Nearly Doubling by ’95

Times Staff Writer

San Diegans’ monthly sewer bills will nearly double and could go higher by 1995 to pay for the multibillion-dollar cost of upgrading the city’s sewage treatment system, according to a report released Thursday by city officials.

With six plans for the mammoth public works project still under consideration, monthly sewer bills--now $13.52 for a single-family household--would rise to $25.19 under the cheapest, $2.4-billion alternative and could jump to $33.36 under the most expensive, $4.2-billion plan, the report shows.

The two alternatives now favored by sewer-system planners and some San Diego City Council members would increase monthly sewer bills to $26.30 or $27.94. Those two systems would cost $2.5 billion and $2.72 billion. The $4.2-billion alternative, which would involve pumping effluent over the Laguna mountains for agricultural use in the Imperial Valley, is considered extremely unlikely.

The city is upgrading its sewage-treatment system to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which set a deadline of last July 1 for U. S. cities to install technology required to remove 85% to 90% of suspended solids from sewage--so-called “secondary” treatment. The city’s “advanced primary” system removes 75% of the solids.

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The construction prices also include the substantial cost of further cleaning the water so that it can be recycled for irrigation and other uses, a process known as water reclamation that the city believes will be essential to counteract water shortages forecast for coming years.

The federal and state governments have sued the city over how quickly the new system will be installed and, as part of the suit, are seeking fines that could cost the city millions of dollars for past sewage spills into the ocean and local waterways.

The projected sewer bills for the 1 million city members of the Metropolitan Sewerage System are smaller than predicted a year ago, when some officials suggested that they could rise to nearly $40 per month in three to five years.

About 25% of the cost of each alternative is for unknown contingencies such as labor strikes, equipment delivery delays, archaeologic discoveries, permit delivery delays or fires that could drive up the final costs. Deputy City Manager H.R. Frauenfelder said that the money will almost certainly be spent.

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“I don’t think we have too much contingency built in. I think we’ll use it,” Frauenfelder said.

The estimates do not include inflation or Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s attempts to convince the federal government to contribute as much as 55% of the costs, the amount given to other cities before grant funds dried up.

Instead of using some of that money to construct a treatment system, the city chose to get waivers from Clean Water Act regulations until 1987, when O’Connor convinced the council to abandon that policy. O’Connor adopted that policy only because she was promised Environmental Protection Agency assistance in winning financial help, said Paul Downey, the mayor’s spokesman.

‘A Little High’

The prices “are, from our perspective, a little high, because we are hopeful of getting federal funding, and we’d like to get it at the 55% level,” Downey said.

Councilman Ron Roberts, an architect of the council’s water reclamation policy, said Thursday that the city must pursue the federal funding in concert with Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Me., and other cities facing similarly large construction bills.

However, an aide to Bruce Henderson, the most outspoken council critic of the construction plan, said that the sewer bill projections are grossly underestimated, and could reach $50 per month when the costs of inflation, future development and cost overruns begin to become apparent.

City officials and consultants planning the project envision a system capable of handling 340 million gallons of sewage each day by the year 2050, a substantial increase from the 190 million gallons currently produced each day.

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1 Million Gallons Reclaimed

They also want to reclaim 120 million gallons of water daily by 2010. The current system reclaims about 1 million gallons of water daily. The alternatives include secondary treatment at the city’s existing Point Loma sewage treatment plant, and at new plants in the North City, the South Bay or both.

In most of the scenarios, water reclamation would occur at the new plants and at satellite plants throughout the city.

Design of the system could begin by late 1990 or early 1991, and the first ground-breaking would be two years later. Frauenfelder declined to comment on when the system might be completed because that subject is central to the city’s legal battle with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is seeking an earlier completion date than the city believes it can meet.

Frauenfelder said that sewer bills are not expected to rise substantially after 1995, except to reflect inflation. The city’s Water Utilities department expects to ask for the first of a series of price hikes this summer, he said.


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