Mayor Jerry Sanders has surely looked at polling on the issue of turning sewer water into drinking water--he'd be foolish not to. If his own polling matches a survey conducted recently by Competitive Edge Research & Communication, he's found that the public is somewhat split. According to Competitive Edge, 44.3 percent support the idea while 49.4 percent don't. But of that second group, the overwhelming majority--35.8 percent--really, really don't.
That appears to be all the information Sanders needs to stake out his own firm position seven months before the next mayoral election. His stated reasons are threefold: It's too expensive, there are open questions about the impact on prescription drugs getting through the purification process and the public is uneasy about the whole thing. Still, he told CityBeat two months ago that he won't 'demagogue' the issue. But that's exactly what he's doing.
Last week, when he announced his veto of legislation passed by the City Council on Oct. 29 that would initiate a pilot project to pump treated wastewater into the San Vicente Reservoir--itself mostly a mixture of water from the Colorado River (which includes treated wastewater) and Northern California with some local water--Sanders called the proposal 'toilet to tap.' He'd done that a couple of months ago but claimed in an interview with CityBeat that he called it that only because City Attorney Mike Aguirre did it first. 'You'll never hear me demagogue that issue,' he told us. So much for that claim.
Sanders has likely seen polling that shows that when people hear the words 'toilet to tap,' opposition to the proposal hardens. As Competitive Edge's John Nienstedt says, 'That ‘toilet-to-tap' label really sticks.' And that makes the suggestion by some (including the excellent Union-Tribune columnist Gerry Braun) that supporters of water recycling should embrace the pejorative term a risky proposition. The mayor is betting that supporters won't be able to turn the slow-moving ship of public opinion around before the election, and he's doing all he can to make it as hard as possible.
And that's too bad. Even he acknowledges that this kind of sewer-water purification will be a necessity. 'I imagine that at some point in the future, we're going to have to do it, for some reason,' he told us in September. 'I mean, it's going to be done.'
Sanders acknowledged that all it will take is public education. It's just a matter of wary people being convinced that all the pee and poop can be removed from the water--and it can. It's a shame that he's not courageous enough to be part of that campaign.
Fortunately, enough members of the City Council are. Councilmembers Toni Atkins, Donna Frye, Ben Hueso and Jim Madaffer and Council President Scott Peters voted to move the project forward (Hueso being the only supporter who's eligible to seek reelection), and those five officials can override the mayor's veto when it comes back to them the first week of December. (This is an example of why we're opposed to a proposal to raise the veto-override threshold to six votes.)
The mayor's reelection is the only possible reason for his opposition. Even the San Diego County Taxpayers Association--whose board is a who's-who of the city's business elite--is in favor of sewer-water purification. Its support undercuts, to a degree, the mayor's argument that the proposal is too costly. As Taxpayers Association President Lani Lutar said at the Oct. 29 meeting, 'Some, including the mayor, claim that the city cannot afford to diversify its water supply with indirect potable reuse. In response, I ask, how can the city afford to not invest in our health and economic lifeline? ... When was the last time that the business community, the environmental community and the Taxpayers Association have all come together on an issue?'
Perhaps the group is mindful of the fact that the city is treating wastewater at its North City Water Reclamation Plant to a higher standard than at its Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant and sending most of the North City water to Point Loma, where it's mixed with lower-quality water and then dumped into the ocean. Talk about wasting money.
In our view, the smart thing to do is spend the estimated $240 million it will take to treat the North City water to a higher standard and use it all--thereby further diversifying the local water supply in the face of a dire future that includes expected droughts and increased competition for dwindling supplies.
Again, Mayor Sanders has put politics before sound public policy, at once acknowledging that water recycling will have to occur and undermining efforts to educate the public about it. And, again, he has shown himself to be a less-than-credible voice on an important issue.