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City Moves to Stave Off Fines for Problems With Sewage

June 10, 1986|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

Faced with fines and a possible ban on new connections to the sewer system, the City of San Diego Monday decided to spend $1.1 million on studies and consultant services it hopes will appease water quality officials and convince them to allow the city to pump greater concentrations of sewage into the Pacific Ocean.

The engineering and health studies, approved by the City Council in two separate actions, were requested by city water officials, who say they need the consultant work to stave off two crises to their massive waste-water treatment system, which is caught between the squeeze of stricter water standards and the increased demands of urban growth.

The first crisis for water officials comes Monday, when the regional Water Quality Control Board holds a hearing on raw sewage spills from a Sorrento Valley pumping station and the illegal dumping of sludge at Brown Field. The board wants to fine the city $1.3 million and is considering imposing a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups in Del Mar, Poway, and northern San Diego communities such as Rancho Penasquitos and Mira Mesa.

The second crisis will come later this year, when water officials square off with the board and the Environmental Protection Agency over the concentration of sewage it can pump more than two miles out into the ocean from its Point Loma waste-water treatment plant.

Failure to ease the water standards may mean the city will have to spend up to $1 billion in new facilities, a cost that would add considerably to local water bills. Even then, the city would face a system-wide moratorium on sewer hook-ups--one that would affect all 16 cities now using the San Diego system, not just the northern communities--because the facilities would not be built in time to meet a July, 1988 deadline.

"Both council actions were very significant in light of the issues facing the Water Utilities Department regarding sewage reatment in the city," said department spokeswoman Yvonne Rehg, who added that the studies would be used to change the minds of water quality officials.

The first study approved by the council was a $397,000 contract with James M. Montgomery, a consulting engineer, to design a second force sewer main to feed into Sewer Pump Station No. 64 in the Sorrento Valley. The station has been plagued with a history of raw sewage spills, one of the latest of which forced health authorities to quarantine the Penasquitos Lagoon in April.

Rehg said city officials will use the council's approval of the contract to try and convince state water officials the city is moving in good faith to increase the capacity of the beleaguered facility, which is servicing the burgeoning population of northern San Diego, Del Mar and Poway.

The water quality board has proposed $400,000 in fines because of the spills, as well as banning all new hook-ups that would lead to Pump No. 64.

"The engineering and design approved today is one of the items we will point to next Monday when we appear before the regional water quality control board to demonstrate our commitment to eliminating sewage overflows at Pump Station 64," said Rehg. "It is our feeling that we would rather spend ratepayers' dollars on improvements such as the parallel force main at the pump station rather than on fines."

The second set of studies approved Monday are included in a $712,000 contract with Lowry and Associates--an amount presented to the council by water officials as an emergency appropriation.

The Lowry contract is necessary, said Rehg, for two reasons. First, the water department wanted to hire the firm to help obtain a waiver from the EPA from building a secondary treatment plant a Point Loma. Although the EPA has given tentative signs it will approve the waiver, which was requested previously by the city, a final decision is not due until August.

Water officials say the firm's help in persuading the EPA is crucial because a secondary treatment plant could cost up to $1 billion to build.

In North County, attempts by water districts to gain exemptions from secondary treatment have raised objections by environmentally conscious groups. In Oceanside, the City Council was persuaded to withdraw its request for an exemption after continued protests by North County residents.

But most of the consulting firm's work will be concentrated on helping to roll back state regulations on effluent from Point Loma. In particular, Lowery and Associates will be studying how the discharge of sewage affects the health of scuba divers who harvest kelp off the coast.

Kelp beds are located about a mile off the coast, and stretch from the northern tip of La Jolla to Ocean Beach. The water quality board has ruled that by July, 1988, the coliform count in the kelp beds cannot be any higher than what is currently required for the public at the beach.

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