Pure Water Project San Diego graphic. Image from sandiego.gov

The University City Community Foundation, a local nonprofit, last year sued the San Diego Water Department over its Pure Water Project.

Sewage is constantly generating combustible gas, even in transit. Water/sewage processing facilities are an environmental point of pride for Pure Water — that all plants collect sewer gas and convert it into electricity.

However, the gas generated by the 10 million gallons of raw sewage in the 11-mile mains — 3- and 4-foot diameter with 18 tons per square foot pressure — will not be converted into electricity, but vented into the neighborhoods. (See graphic.)

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Even though the sewer gas is filtered, it will still smell. The two sewer mains will be buried 6 feet below ground. This is too shallow given the small amount of earth above the pipes related to the uplifting force of a main rupture. San Diego has a poor record being honest with its citizens. (See: “Count the Ways San Diego Keeps The Public in Dark.“)

The red sewer main in the graphic shows the proposed main locations with the necessary vent valve locations. North Clairemont and the Governor-Genesee intersection would have the highest gas ejection volumes.

Louis Rodolico
Louis Rodolico.

We asked Pure Water managers to direct us to any high-pressure sewer mains of this scale. They could not. Apparently the 11-mile distance and 350-feet height rise of these high pressure raw sewer mains are a national experiment.

This illustration shows two high-pressure raw sewage routes. The green route was brought forward by a council member and is one of the routes the community prefers.

Its uniform rise north does not require valves and draws all the sewer gas to the plant by gravity. The green route heading south would allow for an electric generating turbine at Morena. The red route is the one Pure Water wants to build.

Several red route hills are almost 200 feet. Sewage is at its highest pressure at the bottom of a hill. As the sewage travels uphill, the reduced pressure causes the gas suspended in the sewage to effervesce — much like when you release the pressure from a bottle of soda. Relief valves are necessary at the top of each hill to vent the sewer gas. As an environmental measure, we asked Pure Water to harvest the sewer gas for power. Pure Water refused.

Less gas would effervesce with higher pump pressure, but then bigger pumps are needed and the risk and intensity of main failures increases. The red path route is the most technically complex, expensive and disruptive. This national experiment was designed by lobbyists hustling their clients — higher pressure pumps, vent valves and filter canisters.

How did Pure Water get away with it? During the early sewer main design phase, Pure Water excluded the public but included organizations like conservancy groups, SDG&E and Caltrans. Coincidentally all these groups have the ability to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to purchase ballot signatures.

The only group Pure Water identified who could not raise the money to get the issue on the ballot were the citizens along the red line path. Pure Water kept the nature of the high-pressure sewer mains secret as long as possible.

In the dark art of project budget projections, Pure Water temporarily made the cost of the red line path the lowest by removing the $30 million to $60 million for SDG&E underground utility relocations, change orders, and other scope items.

These costs were identified and added after council had approved the project — in my opinion a white-collar crime.

What’s unfolding is what we sensed all along — that the red line path is not only the most disruptive but once you add in utility relocations it is also the most expensive. The city and SDGE are entering a lawsuit over who pays for the utility relocations, but we pay the $30 million to $60 million regardless of who wins. Plus legal fees. (See: Pure Water Corners City Council in Clairemont Times.)

The Pure Water project will reduce solids dumped in the ocean — it is actually four projects: Morena pump station, raw sewage mains, processing plant and fresh water lines to the lake. The lake acts as a settlement tank for heavy metals.

At the Nov. 15, 2018, San Diego City Council meeting I was unsuccessful in having the council take a second look at one component of the project — the red sewer main path. (See webcast.) Five Democrats voted to fund the project and four Republicans were against, although the Republican votes were protesting the exclusion of nonunion labor. Unearthing another question: Who comes first — citizens or unions?

Just as the federal government has become dysfunctional, San Diegans are constantly being ripped off by the influence of big money. But political positions change. After all, Republicans in Lincoln’s day were the party of racial integration and Democrats at that time would be considered white nationalists today.

Democracies exist on the precipice of anarchy. Ninety years ago, Germany was a center of civilization but fell under a tyrant’s spell.

What should be open public issues today are being quietly negotiated in back rooms. By the time citizens get wind of them, they are essentially closed issues.

San Diego needs to stand up for democracy and stop hiding things from citizens. Some of the most intelligent people in our city have betrayed us. Excessive lobbying resulted in wasteful increases in the cost and complexity of the Pure Water sewer mains.

Hopefully the UCCF lawsuit will raise awareness. City managers and ethics officers should be seeing red flags. Lobbyists and their clients see only green dollars.

Louis Rodolico has been a resident of University City since 2001.