Tuesday was a big day for water projects in Southern California. The Metropolitan Water District's board of directors authorized $10.8 billion toward Governor Jerry Brown's effort to fix the state's aging water delivery system, one his own father pioneered as governor in the 1960s. A little closer to home, the city council unanimously voted to move forward the $1.1-$1.3 billion Pure Water project by certifying environmental documentation analyzing project impacts.
The loud roar that once opposed "toilet to tap" has turned into strong support for Pure Water with the caveat of University City, Clairemont, and Scripps Ranch residents regarding the 11-mile route the project's underground pipeline takes that will travel from the Morena Pump Station to the North City Pure Water Facility. They believe the city too quickly dismissed alternative routes.
Several councilmembers agreed and chastised city staff. Grand apologies to constituents followed. Some expressed feeling trapped into voting yes because any delays could put project funding at risk. Delays could result in the city having to spend $2 billion upgrading the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The city has gotten waivers since 1995 with the latest one expiring in 2022, the same year the first phase of Pure Water is set to go online. The key justification for the last waiver in 2017 was Pure Water's promise to recycle some of the 160 million gallons currently being dumped into the ocean daily from the Point Loma plant.
Councilmember Mark Kersey asked if there was any way to approve the environmental document and look at route alternatives later. The city attorney's office advised against this saying it would leave the city legally vulnerable.
City staff told Kersey it would take 18 months to re-circulate the environmental impact report with alternative routes due to required rigorous studying and testing.
"It's very clear to me that we did not fully study some of the alternatives that were presented today [by the public]," said Councilmember David Alvarez. "And so, that alone puts me in an uncomfortable position."
While it's believable that Alvarez may not have had a heads-up (project doesn't go through his district), it's harder to fathom how the five councilmember's whose districts (1, 2, 5, 6, 7) this project runs through were caught unaware.
Councilmembers called out city staff for not doing their due diligence with community outreach. This is ironic considering Pure Water won an award in 2017 for public outreach from American Planning Association.
At the April 10 hearing, Keli Balo, Pure Water project manager, said "We looked closely at the suggested alternatives and did not carry them forward in the [environmental documentation] as project alternatives as they are infeasible or would not substantially lessen the significant environmental impacts of the project."
Belo pointed out that some routes would merely transfer the same impacts to other areas, and in some cases result in more significant challenges or impacts.
The chosen route starts from the Morena Pump Station in Bay Park and winds through main thoroughfares in Clairemont and University City before reaching the Pure Water facility.
Some asked how the city can deem a route infeasible if they haven't studied it fully. Alternative routes are the SDG&E route where existing natural gas and electrical lines run (SDG&E opposes), the interstate along Route 52 and Interstate 805, and a detour that avoids University City altogether and stays in Clairemont. Balo stated Caltrans policies and procedures prohibited the interstate option.
Councilmember Lorie Zapf asked if anyone had bothered to call state representatives to ask for help in dealing with Caltrans. John Helminski from public utilities admitted they had not.
Another major concern is the construction fatigue of adding another huge construction project to areas already overburdened with big public works projects like the trolley. Construction concerns include impacts to traffic, air quality, noise, and scheduling. One University City resident stating, "All our public projects are a year or longer overdue."
The city has promised no full road closures during construction.
Some residents said the city council had already made up their mind before the hearing. Mayor Faulconer introducing the item bolstered that feeling for some.
It's no secret that Councilmember Chris Cate has been an advocate for Pure Water, having lobbied the city in 2013 as he was fundraising for his own run at a city council seat. One Clairemont resident said Cate should have recused himself from voting.
During public testimony, six city councilmember's left the room at some point. Kersey missed eight speakers opposing the alignment, Cate missed seven, Zapf missed four (only one was a resident), and Councilmember Chris Ward missed six (project doesn't go through his district).
During public testimony, some residents spoke about the aftermath of the pipeline's installation with concerns about noxious gases, foul odors, and the possibility of Armageddon via sewage leaks or geysers.
To this, Zapf replied, "I mean people [are] making it sound like there's going to be rivers of sewage if something goes wrong where really there's quick shutoff valves. That somehow it's the same as incinerating astronauts in space and there will be a loss of life if something breaks. To those people, I might say you don't have the idea or the facts that underneath right now, all over the city, there's fuel pipelines, natural gas pipelines, electrical. There's a lot of stuff running around our city. So one minute of sewage flowing out isn't good, but I don't see rivers or a loss of life happening there."
Last fall, Clairemont and University City experienced major water pipe failure. A pressurized pipe failure on Morena Boulevard in Clairemont ejected several million gallons of water. Residents are horrified at the thought of that water having been sewage. North Park, Mission Valley, and Ocean Beach have all had water main breaks since then. Earlier in 2017, Little Italy, University City, and North Park had water main breaks. Because of this, many have requested a steel or concrete sleeve around the pipeline.
Helminski said a loss of pressure in the line will automatically cause the pipeline flow to shut down within 30 seconds.
Councilmember Barbara Bry asked city staff to explain why there was only one pipeline route analyzed. To this, city staff read a robotic statement that resulted in Bry laughing, "Well, that was like in a different language than English."
Balo gave it to her in English, "There are limited pathways for us to get to point A to point B and they all have similar impacts to the community."
After the Pure Water project vote, the city council took less than 30 seconds to award unanimously a $75 million dollar Pure Water contract. In total, they spent less than four minutes awarding two contractors $120 million in Pure Water construction management contracts. When these same contracts were discussed in March's subcommittee, allegations about discrimination toward one of the contractors was raised.
After the hearing, Ruth DeSantis from University City, said, "It showed us once again, how rarely people in government have a backbone. I am not surprised that the [environmental impact report] got approved but I am very shocked that it was unanimous."
Eventually, Pure Water is supposed to save ratepayers money. Though some speculate it could spike to begin with. Spikes some have already experienced while being overcharged an average of $500. One ratepayer was overcharged $11,000. An audit is underway to pinpoint what went wrong, though one councilmember stated in March that it looked like it might be attributable to a meter reader.
Project design will be completed this summer, contracts advertised later this year, with construction to occur early 2019 through late 2021, and 30 million gallons per day of purified drinking water being produced by 2022. The second and third phases of the project will build water facilities in the Central Area and South Bay.