The epic battle between the cities of Coronado and Imperial Beach for 200,000 gallons a day of sewage from the U.S. Navy landed in federal court last week, after Imperial Beach countersued Coronado, along with a local oversight agency and, for the first time, pulled the Navy into the suit.
The case had been in state court, but I.B.'s counter-claim named the Navy, which does its litigating in the federal courts.
The lawsuit was filed by Coronado nearly a year ago, challenging a ruling by a local agency that deals with jurisdiction fights. The local agency had reviewed Coronado's concerns over I.B. working a wastewater contract completely within the boundaries of Coronado and decided that a 1967 contract between the Navy and I.B. for sewer service established that I.B. and the Navy were expanding the contract rather than creating new services.
The sewage will come from the new Special Warfare Command being built at the south end of the Silver Strand, The at-least $700 million complex will be the headquarters and single location for the command, which is now spread across the U.S.
Blair King, Coronado's city manager (who was I.B.'s city manager in the 1990s) said their concern is that I.B. is planning to deliver municipal services to a project that is entirely in Coronado. The Navy command is on about 10 percent of Coronado's city land, he said.
"Coronado provides extensive municipal services to its residents — including the Navy," King said. "This is a lawsuit over who can provide government services in Coronado."
Imperial Beach and the Navy inked a contract in 1967 that lets I.B. provide wastewater services to a handful of residents — five or six small houses — on the then-vacant land on the Silver Strand. The cluster of residences is served by a six-inch pipe, according to court documents. Once the Navy command moves in, the Navy anticipates a wastewater flow of 200,000 gallons a day — far more than a six-inch pipe can handle.
"The Navy will pay for the upgrades to the sewer system to handle the flow where ever it ends up," King said. "Our understanding is that they will rebuild the main line down Seacoast Drive to Imperial Beach Avenue."
With development planned or underway for two large housing projects along the route in I.B., a free pipeline built to handle more than a million gallons a week may come in handy.
"The state law says if there is an expansion of services, the Local Agency Formation Commission has to review it," King said. "Instead, [the commission] walked off the field." No one consulted the Coronado City Council before the deal was made, King said. "We never considered challenging the environmental impact report because we don't want to hurt the project," he said.
I.B.'s city manager did not return calls for comment this week and the Navy declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Other observers say that the fight could be over the sewage itself.
While he's not familiar with the I.B.-Coronado dispute, Jimmy Smith from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board says that a fight over who gets the sewage is an emerging trend.
"Sewage is becoming a valuable commodity," Smith said. "It's a good idea to consider expanding your water portfolio with wastewater that can be purified."
Once purified, the water formerly known as sewage can be used for irrigation or it can be purified to advanced levels and be used for drinking water.
While San Diego's water-purification efforts have been widely reported — with the emerging understanding that a shortage of sewage will keep the plant's output below capacity — other areas are also considering building their own water-purification plants. For example, the Padre Dam Municipal Water District has been purifying water for years and in 2014 began construction on a plant to produce potable water that will first be used to recharge its aquifer.