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A Superior Alternative to Secondary Treatment

<i> Bob Filner is the San Diego City Council member from District 8. </i>

As a devout environmentalist, I was continually dismayed during the 1980s as I watched the City Council drag its feet rather than move decisively to upgrade our sewage system to secondary treatment. Secondary was the law; secondary was good for the environment; secondary meant a cleaner ocean.

In typical fashion, the anti-environmental forces argued that it made little “economic” or “fiscal” sense to take the necessary steps to protect our environment. And I applauded the decision of the City Council in 1987 (before I was a member) to fully commit itself to this “environmental” position.

Now, in 1989, I have joined my colleague, Councilman Bruce Henderson, to lead the fight against a total upgrade of our sewage system to secondary treatment. Why did I change what was previously, for me, a sacred position?

A major consideration was the testimony of the highly respected scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They concluded that moving from advanced primary to secondary treatment (that is, from a system that removes 75% of the suspended solids from sewage to one that removes 85% to 90%) would have virtually no positive impact on our ocean’s ecology.

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Put another way, the incredible costs for a small incremental increase in the purity of sewage water dumped into the ocean could not be justified by any measurable environmental gain.

I have yet to hear any credible technical rebuttal to this position. In fact, just last week, the same concerns were echoed by scientific voices from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Water Sciences and Technology Board of the National Research Council.

As persuasive as this scientific testimony might be, an even more important element in my conversion was the recognition of the critical necessity of water reclamation for San Diego’s future. That is the new factor in the environmental equation.

It is absolutely vital--for our environment, for our pocketbooks, for our very quality of life in San Diego--that we move rapidly to reclaim as much water as possible from our sewage. Reclaimed water is fully satisfactory for such uses as agriculture and irrigation of lawns and golf courses, and in many industrial plants.

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All of my colleagues on the City Council recognize this--and have ensured that planning for water reclamation will occupy a central place in the overall sewage treatment policy.

But here’s the rub: We may not be able to afford both water reclamation and a full secondary system. And, if the federal law is not changed--and we are forced to go to secondary--what will be dropped due to fiscal constraints? Water reclamation!

We cannot allow that to happen. A decentralized system of six to 10 water reclamation plants, in upstream locations around the county, would allow us to reclaim about half of our sewage for usable water. And water reclamation, let me point out, requires going beyond secondary, to tertiary treatment. So about half of the metropolitan system’s sewage would be treated to a level where more than 99% of the solids are removed, and the remaining half would receive advanced primary treatment.

Without the necessity of converting the Point Loma treatment plant to secondary and building two other plants, such a system would cost about $1.6 billion to build. That’s more than $1 billion less than our current plans call for.

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But such an environmentally sound, cost-effective and common-sense system is precluded by federal law. That is why Henderson and I are leading a bipartisan effort with our congressional delegation to pursue an alternative course.

If our sewer rates are to be kept within reasonable bounds, if we are to have enough water at a reasonable cost, if we really want to protect our environment, we must succeed in changing the law. Secondary should not be our primary aim; water reclamation should.


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