continued Water produced from sewage by the reclamation plants isn't good enough to drink, so it will instead be used for irrigation and possible industrial applications. That means it can't be mixed with drinking water, and thus a separate set of pipes must be built to transport the treated water to its would-be users. In North City, the costs of those pipes are currently estimated to be more than $64 million.
Down in South Bay, the city plans to spend almost $100 million on another water reclamation plant, set for construction next year, although insiders say that cost is expected to grow. Currently estimated costs for the separate water lines are $25 million, though many experienced observers feel those numbers are too low. A sludge processing facility nearby will set the city back at least $52 million, along with another $70 million for supporting pipes and new sewers. Nearby, the South Bay Ocean Outfall, a huge pipe being built to dump treated sewage into the ocean, is currently estimated to cost $172 million.
Then there's the "Metro Biosolids Center," a depot for processing the sewage sludge that is currently dumped on Fiesta Island after being produced from raw sewage at the Point Loma plant. It's costing at least $240 million to build. Add in the pipes, pump stations, and other support facilities needed to get the sludge up to the Biosolids plant, located at the Miramar marine helicopter base near Kearny Mesa, and the price tag totals almost $350 million.
City officials insist that the costs, rising as they are, are still reasonable considering the huge nature of the original undertaking, and they argue that the vast majority of the budget increases are due to the creation over time of new projects required to fix previously undiscovered problems in the system. "Our earlier projections were based on a time line out to the year 2000," says Metro wastewater spokesman Ron Kole. "Work on the overall project now goes out to 2006, and we've picked up new tasks along the way that need to be accomplished. This is an evolving program; it isn't static."
Henderson is not convinced. "The part of the deal from the bureaucracy is to make certain that there is always an excuse for the cost overruns, and they're never called cost overruns, they're called program additions, enhancements to the project. And the reason the bureaucracy is allowed to do that is, that again benefits the politicians, who then can say, 'Well, yes, the project is higher than we told you it would be, but that's because it's a better project, it's an improved project.' Therefore the politicians never ask any questions."
What should be done? Henderson for one says the entire program should be reviewed, especially the need to build a reclamation plant in the South Bay. "A lot of money has been lost, but there's a lot more money to be lost if we don't stop these projects immediately - all of the new reclamation plants, all of the new distribution systems. "We need to concentrate our money on repairing our existing infrastructure and wait for independent review of all of these new projects. Ultimately, the chances are that the reclamation facilities will have to be mothballed, because there are huge operating costs associated with them."
Ironically, Henderson's position on the South Bay plant is supported by Union-Tribune editorialists who have bitterly opposed his bid to place large public works projects on the ballot for public votes. In the case of the South Bay plant, though, the U-T claims the plant "is a luxury we can't afford and don't need."