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San Diego sewage waiver casts pall over efforts to restore Ocean

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Congress in 1972 passed the Clean Water Act (CWA), which has the intent of removing the deleterious effects of human waste on the environment. To make this real, the CWA cut through a lot of dissimulation about sewage treatment by establishing numerical standards for wastewater discharges: the famous "30-30" standard of 30 mg/l of Biological Oxygen Demand (live fecal debris) and Total Suspended Solids (all fecal debris).

Percentage reduction requirements lead to only incremental improvements, at best; furthermore, as population density rises, the total sewage solid "load" on receiving waters becomes higher even as "percent reductions" in sewage become greater. The CWA cut through all this by the strict numerical standards, and set aside funding for what was called "the largest peacetime contruction project in history", a national plan for massive investment in sewage treatment infrastructure.

One of the entailed efforts was that the only practical way to attain secondary standards was biological treatment. For that to work, source-control is necessary to stop industrial waste from entering the sewage treatment system and interfering with biological processes.

Sewage Scofflaws didn't surrender so easily. San Diego, in particular, initially ignored the CWA; other sewage dischargers cast about for some way to avoid more intensive sewage treatment. The results of their lobbying bore fruit in 1976 when Congress amended the CWA to allow less than secondary treatment levels for some dischargers via the "301(h) Waiver" process.

Only two Waivers were of significant size: Orange County and San Diego. Orange County having agreed to comply by 2012, the only remaining large Waiver holder is San Diego.

EPA policy has been to discourage Waiver applicants, but to honor the law and allow them. Still, it's a nuisance and an artificial "blip" in enforcement of the CWA; as a consequence, and in the course of time, even smaller Waivers were phased out (Goleta, Hawaii, Morro Bay).

The Waivers (or, Variances, as they are called) can be seen, in retrospect, as a curious and rebelious non-conformity to Public Health norms by a few recalcitrant sewage dumpers. All were along the Coast, because these Waivers required discharges to the Ocean. As an odd footnote to the history of sewage treatment, it was understood that the Waivers were limited in number and that they would be phased out over time.

A graph of total sewage solids discharged via the Waivers shows that almost all Waiver recipients were, in 1976, small and relatively insignificant polluters; as Orange County and San Diego grew, the volume of sewage dumped via the Waivers grew even as the number of Waivers fell, because of the immense growth of San Diego and Orange County.

With Orange County's coming compliance, in 2012, the last of the large, egregious Waivers is San Diego. San Diego forms an anomalous window in time, pretending to remain a small fishing village even as the Navy West Coast Fleet and Marines moved in, industry bloomed, and the population far outstripped the treatment ability of its sewage infrastructure.

The lack of prudence and foresight of San Diego is only exceeded by its political power. San Diego has been able to influence political forces to continue to support its Waiver, and will continue avoiding modern sewage treatment so long as it can get away with it.

It's time to remove Sect. 301 (h) of the Clean Water Act, or modify it so that it sunsets sewage dischargers (Publicly Owned Treatment Works, in the lingo of EPA) larger than 5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater.

Eliminating the Waiver would streamline the law, make uniform the application of the law, and simplify enforcement. Eliminating the Waivers would save the vast sums of money spent on studies intended to "prove" that the discharges are harmless; there's a whole section of EPA assigned to do nothing but go over the voluminous reports and studies required for the Waiver.

It's been 37 years since the CWA was passed; the overall goal of sewage treatment wasn't just secondary standards, that was just the starting point. Water conservation and recycling is key to our future. The CWA doesn't speak to conservation, but the goal is clearly to improve the reuse of wastewater, as well as lower its bad effects on the habitat and downstream drinkers.

It's past time for an end to the 301 waivers; we should be looking past tertiary treatment to complete water recycling.


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