Under a deal ratified Tuesday, two environmental groups have agreed not to sue San Diego over a waiver from a federal law requiring improved treatment standards for sewage discharged into the ocean from the Point Loma Wastewater Plant.
The agreement with San Diego Coastkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation obligates the city to spend up to $2 million to study ways to maximize the use of reclaimed wastewater instead of dumping it in the ocean.
In exchange, the environmental groups will support the five-year waiver from the Clean Water Act that was recently granted to the city by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The City Council voted 6-1 in favor of the settlement agreement. Councilman Carl DeMaio cast the lone dissenting vote.
The Point Loma plant now operates on a waiver from having to treat sewage that is discharged into the ocean at what's known as an "advanced primary'' level. That process removes fewer solids and other pollutants from wastewater than a "secondary'' treatment level.
According to Mayor Jerry Sanders' office, upgrading the Point Loma plant to bring the level of wastewater treatment up to the higher standard would cost the city more than $1 billion.
San Diego sought the waiver from the EPA - the city's third - in November to avoid having to upgrade the Point Loma plant. In December, the EPA tentatively approved the waiver request.
Bruce Reznik, Coastkeeper's executive director, testified that while the group does not like the waiver, it was more important to develop a strategy that puts more emphasis on wastewater recycling.
"Water is our most precious resource,'' Reznik said. "We need to look at a strategy that is beyond secondary treatment that focuses on taking our most precious commodity and figuring out ways that we can protect our water security and enhance that through water reclamation and reuse.''
Coastkeeper has sued in an effort to block previous waivers.
Councilwoman Donna Frye said the city is currently spending a lot of money to treat and dump sewage into the ocean when it should be looking for ways to reuse the water.
"In the process of doing that, one of the benefits of that is (that) we will reduce the amount of sewage going out of Point Loma,'' Frye said. "That will potentially allow us to meet secondary treatment standards by reducing the amount of sewage going into the plant and out of the pipe into the ocean.''
Recycled water is now being used in San Diego for such purposes as irrigation of landscaping along roadways and in parks through a program known as "purple pipe,'' but it is not pumped directly into the drinking supply.
DeMaio said he doesn't support the waiver because the city has not fully exploited its purple pipe program.
He also accused the environmental groups of using "extortion'' through lawsuits to drive their agendas.
"I don't think we ought to have litigation driven policy,'' he said.