SAN DIEGO (AP) — The San Diego City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to advance a $2.5 billion plan to reuse wastewater for drinking, the latest example of how California cities are looking for new supplies amid a severe drought.
The plan calls to initially recycle 15 million gallons by 2023 and 83 million gallons a day by 2035, about one-third of the city's water supply. It enjoys broad support from Mayor Kevin Faulconer, business groups and environmental advocates.
The Orange County Water District, which serves 2.4 million people in California, plans to boost production of recycled water next year from 70 million gallons to 100 million gallons a day. It has reused wastewater for drinking since 2008 through treatment that includes sending water through ground basins.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves 1.8 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area, decided in September to pursue construction of facilities that it says could lead to turning wastewater into drinking water for Sunnyvale and western Santa Clara County.
Still, it remains rare to turn sewage to drinking water. The WateReuse Association, a group of agencies behind the efforts, counts only 10 projects nationwide, including El Paso, Texas, and Fairfax County, Virginia. Two Texas cities, Wichita Falls and Big Spring, started projects within the past two years.
The cost of such undertakings approaches the cost of seawater desalination — another expensive idea that has gained interest during the drought. Recycling, called toilet-to-tap by critics, has also suffered an image problem that industry insiders call "the yuk factor."
San Diego, a city of 1.4 million people that imports 85 percent of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California, has slowly warmed to the idea. A 2012 survey by the San Diego County Water Authority showed that nearly three of four residents favored turning wastewater into drinking water, up from one of four in a 2005 survey.
"The drought puts a finer point on why this is so necessary," Faulconer said. "Droughts are unfortunately a way of life in California, so we have to be prepared. This helps us to control our own destiny."
The hand of the city was forced partly because its main treatment plant fails to meet federal standards for dumping wastewater in the ocean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted a waiver every five years since 1995, with the latest one set to expire in July.
On Tuesday, the City Council ratified an agreement between the mayor and four environmental groups — San Diego Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and San Diego Audubon Society — to ask the EPA for another reprieve and to commit to the recycled wastewater plan. Unlike Orange County, San Diego plans to send water through a reservoir because it lacks groundwater basins.
Mehul Patel, Orange County's groundwater replenishment system program manager, said about a dozen agencies from around the world have visited since last year to learn about recycled water. California agencies are increasingly interested because of the drought and prospects for state funding under a $7.5 billion ballot measure that voters approved this month, he said.