With drought relief in California a long way off, San Diegans are now getting a giant step closer to a more reliable, long-term water supply.
By a 9-0 vote Tuesday, the City Council approved a long-envisioned sewage purification system that'll crank out water you can drink.
Experts say it'll likely exceed current water quality standards – while supplying about a third of the city's daily needs and saving big bucks on wastewater treatment costs.
"It originally met with some opposition,” says Matt O’Malley, a water scientist and attorney with San Diego Coastkeeper, a leading local environmental group.
“You have the moniker 'Toilet to Tap' -- it gets thrown around a lot,” O’Malley said in a City Hall interview Tuesday. “But really, what people have to realize is that every source of water they have is recycled many times over. What we're just doing is maximizing that recycling here locally."
“It's better for the environment at the outfall. It's better for us from a water supply perspective," he added.
The concept started small, with a million-gallon-a-day plant in North City, with the goal of reaching 83 million gallons a day 20 years from now.
But much of the $3.5 billion cost of the project could be offset by avoiding expensive federal mandates to ramp up treatment of sewage pumped from the Point Loma Wastewater Plant into the Pacific.
"Half of the flow that goes to Point Loma will be diverted, treated and then re-used,” said city Public Utilites Director Halla Razak. “So the impact to the environment is definitely positive. When you look at the wastewater and the water costs, this is the right solution for San Diego. It's not only more economical, but it provides a local supply that is sustainable and drought-proof."
Critics say the city hasn't explored enough alternatives or conservation measures and that the project would drive up housing costs and encourage real estate speculation by developers.
But backers call it a 'no-brainer'.
"Why are we taking water from hundreds of miles away -- spending all the money and energy to do that -- just to dump it into the ocean?" O’Malley asks. "We're going to need to squeeze very drop, literally, out of the system that we have. So this is a good first step, we think."
The program was recently profiled on the CBS magazine show “60 Minutes.”
San Diego isn't coming all that late to the party, but a number of other cities and water agencies have gotten an early jump on "wastewater re-use" technology.
Orange County is now recycling 70 million gallons a day to 'potable' -- and is soon expected to reach 100 million gallons a day.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District in the San Francisco Bay area is also considering the idea.