Escondido to build pipeline as part of larger vision to meet water demand

Escondido City Hall is pictured July 31. (North Coast Current photo)

North Coast Current file photo

Escondido City Hall is pictured July 31. (North Coast Current photo)

Alex Groves

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NEIGHBORS_escondidoThe city of Escondido is in the initial phases of creating a $5 million pipeline to transport recycled wastewater from a treatment facility on its west side to agricultural entities on its east and northeast sides.

It’s a project that’s one of many slated for completion over the coming decades, according to officials.

The pipeline would extend the flow of treated wastewater from a water treatment facility on Escondido’s far western edge to agricultural entities on its far eastern edge.

The current pipeline only extends as far as Grape Day Park in downtown Escondido, according to Public Utilities Director Chris McKinney.

The project is relatively small compared with some others that will be facilitated in years to come, all of which are part of Escondido’s larger vision for water conservation and efficiency.

That vision will cost approximately $285 million and will consist of a number of projects intended to ensure the continual flow of water to the public as population increases.

The planned improvements were endorsed by the City Council on April 2 during one of its regular sessions.

McKinney said the council hasn’t approved the lump sum of $285 million. Rather, they are approving each project on a case-by-case basis.

The public utilities director added that use of treated wastewater for irrigation and farming purposes is a fairly common practice in multiple parts of Southern California.

He pointed to city agencies throughout San Diego County as well as Orange County to illustrate the region’s attempt to be more creative with its water usage.

However, the plan that McKinney devised for the City Council’s consideration takes things one step further. He said the city hopes to eventually implement a means of creating potable drinking water from wastewater.

“The goal is to eventually treat this filtrated water to an even higher standard,” McKinney said. “Our plan sometime in the mid-2020s is to develop a treatment system where we can treat the water to a potable drinking standard.”

McKinney emphasized that creating potable drinking water from wastewater is a process that is still far away.

And, for the moment, the City Council still has steps it needs to take with regard to the irrigation pipeline. The city aims to get that up and running by the beginning of 2015 if not by the end of this year.

McKinney said the city still needs to pick a construction firm that will build both the pipeline and the irrigation materials necessary to provide the agricultural lands — mostly groves of avocado trees — with water that has been processed and treated.

One element of the pipeline that will make it somewhat different than some of its predecessors is that it will include a small water treatment device at its end.

The device will be used for reverse osmosis in order to mitigate the salt level in the water, as avocados tend to be more sensitive to salt than other tree crops.

The construction of the pipeline and the treatment device will be up for bid sometime this summer, according to McKinney.

An alternative to sewer extension?

Escondido Councilman Ed Gallo said the decision to create a pipeline for treated wastewater was not only brought forward with the goal of conservation in mind, but also for the purpose of saving money and generating revenue.

Gallo said the project was an alternative to the proposed extension of an 18-mile pipeline that transports raw sewage material to the ocean in Encinitas. Such an extension would have been problematic because it would have been very expensive to facilitate, according to Gallo.

He said it would cost a couple hundred million dollars to build an extension of the sewage system whereas the completed irrigation pipeline will only cost about $5 million at the time of its completion.

There is also the potential to offset some of the costs of construction for the irrigation pipeline because the city will sell the cleaned water to the agricultural entities that use it, in turn generating a profit that can be applied to the cost of the project.

“It’s not like if we built the extension of the outflow, where we would be using public funds and we wouldn’t have the option to get any money back,” Gallo said. “At least this way we have the option to get some money back.”

Mayor Sam Abed said that contrary to popular belief, the plan for the pipeline has been done for a number of years.

He said it’s been revisited and endorsed by the council now for a number of reasons, but the primary one is that the sewage treatment system was starting to reach 75 percent of its capacity and something needed to be done.

Keeping costs low for agricultural customers

Abed said the increasing cost of water for agricultural specialists was a secondary reason to build the pipeline. He attributed the increasing prices to a system of increasing government regulation.

“The problem is with the government over-regulations and letting the supply go down south,” Abed said. “And then second, is that the cost of water (set) by the Metropolitan Water District is not fair.”

Abed said the San Diego County Water Authority, in conjunction with Metropolitan Water District, has been raising the cost of water quite sharply over the past decade.

The council in turn has been trying to come up with solutions for agricultural customers, who have taken precedence because of how important water is for any kind of farming.

“Seventy percent of their costs are water,” Abed said of agricultural customers. “And when you increase the cost of the water by 10-15 percent, it’s a fine threshold between jeopardizing the agricultural business in Escondido or not.”

He said the end result has been that the council has kept prices low for agricultural customers at the expense of businesses and residential customers, who have seen their prices go up.

But prices set in place by the Metropolitan water district still continued to increase sharply, and that’s when the effort to build a pipeline extension was agreed upon, according to Abed.

Now the mayor hopes that by having Escondido kick in its own irrigation water, prices might be less of a bear for the city’s residents, especially those whose occupation depends on it.

“That will hopefully continue to provide competitive rates to the agricultural customers,” he said.

Alex Groves is a freelance writer in the region

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