It is not a bold statement to say that City Attorney Mike Aguirre makes bold statements. That may explain why no one in an audience of more than 100 flinched when he made the following declaration: "The drinking water is not safe, in my judgment."
If made by any other public official, Aguirre's statement, uttered two weeks ago at a luncheon sponsored by the Catfish Club, would have been something akin to screaming "Fire" in a crowded theater. But this was, after all, Aguirre speaking, and he's prone to such hyperbole.
However, that doesn't mean Aguirre's claim is without merit. Trouble has been brewing at the city's water department for a long time now and as the city attorney told CityBeat, "I'm not exaggerating the problem; I'm just emphasizing the seriousness of the problem and the health issues that are involved."
The problem Aguirre refers to stems from two separate mandates issued by state and federal regulators, who want the city to upgrade its water-treatment facilities, the methods it uses to purify its water and the infrastructure it uses to transport that water.
The most intense pressure is coming from the state Department of Health Services (DHS), the agency that monitors the city's water quality. In 1997, DHS ordered the city to take action after it discovered that numerous storage tanks had structural problems. They also found that the Alvarado Treatment Plant, one of the city's three treatment facilities, also had structural problems and needed to be optimized to treat water for cryptosporidium, a potentially deadly parasite that lives in the intestines of humans and animals and can be passed via water contaminated by fecal matter.
The compliance order details 96 steps the city needs to take to fix its water system, but DHS has amended the plan 10 times since 1997, granting the city as many extensions. Although the majority of the steps have been completed, Mark Stone, the city's deputy director of water operations, admits that the city has failed to replace 10 miles of old pipe and install a new pipeline and may be on the verge of a third violation if a planned renovation of a Rancho Bernardo reservoir doesn't receive funding.
In a recent e-mail to city officials, a DHS official identified the renovation of the water-treatment plants as the "most critical projects" on the list and noted that if they aren't completed, they "could lead to water quality violations" under recently published standards that take full effect in 2012.
"When you know that the state is telling you that you are not in compliance with the rules, and that has been postponed for a long time, and the rules are designed to maintain the safety of the water supply, it's something that you can't compromise on," Aguirre said.
In addition to the DHS compliance order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency that regulates drinking water, enacted new standards in January requiring the city to implement a phased-in series of additional upgrades, such as increased monitoring of the water supply and improvements to water-treatment plants-including the ability to use ozone gas to safeguard against cryptosporidium-with an ultimate deadline of 2012.
Aguirre argues that the new standards are in place, but the city has been given the next six years to meet them-time he said the city doesn't have.
"My concern is that we have now been told that we are falling below the requirements," he said. "We know the reason why is because the sanitation of the three treatment plants has not been maintained at the levels that we need." He said the city shouldn't wait for the water to become hazardous. "We need to act upon it now."
Stone and other officials in the city's water department-which also provides water to Coronado, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe and Imperial Beach-maintain that the city's water is clean and safe, yet they acknowledge that it could be cleaner and safer. They say they're willing to comply with the demands of regulators, but their efforts to do so have been hamstrung by the city's financial crisis, which has left the city unable to sell bonds to generate the money needed to fund those projects.
To upgrade the treatment plants and make additional improvements, the city needs an estimated $300 million. Because the water department receives money every time users pay their water bills, it isn't dependent on the city's beleaguered operating budget-which will take a major hit this year when the time comes to pay into the city's employee-pension fund. Typically, the water department would use the money from its customers to pay off the debt incurred when it issues bonds. With the city's credit rating suspended, city officials are forced to consider asking private investors to loan them the money and absorb a greater risk, which drives up the interest rate. With the cost of borrowing money increasing, Aguirre, Mayor Jerry Sanders and others are considering asking water users to foot the bill.
"We need to raise rates," said Aguirre, "but we need to make sure that there is a direct connection between the raising of rates and the resolving of the drinking-water problem."
Of course, the city already charges some of the highest rates in the state, having raised its prices by 6 percent in each of the past four years. It's scheduled raise them again in 2007. Revenue from those raises was supposed to help pay off two bonds that would have funded the necessary improvements, but only one was issued, leaving much of the work unfunded. As for where exactly all that extra money from the rate increases went, it seems no one at City Hall is quite sure what drain it went down.
Sanders has his top lieutenants looking into it and wants an explanation before he asks water users for more money. How long the investigation is going to take is anyone's guess.
"These problems have been around for 10 years, and they aren't going to be solved overnight," said Fred Sainz, the mayor's press secretary.
In the meantime, water department officials, under the scrutiny of regulators, are proceeding with the projects they have funding for and hoping financial relief comes soon.Asked whether he drinks city water, Aguirre said, "I don't drink too much of the water from the tap, personally, no.... My personal choice is not to take the risk."