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San Diego Launching Pure Water, Largest Infrastructure Project in City’s History

Reverse osmosis filters are stacked at the Pure Water Demonstration Facility in San Diego on Nov. 5, 2019. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After months of delays and turbulence, sewage purification pipeline ready for construction in north part of city.


SAN DIEGO — San Diego formally launched Friday the largest infrastructure project in city history, a sewage recycling system that will boost local water independence in the face of more severe droughts caused by climate change.

Dubbed “Pure Water,” the multibillion-dollar project is the culmination of a lengthy process featuring thorny lawsuits, complex labor deals and an aggressive public education campaign to fight the derogatory early nickname “toilet to tap.”

While construction crews have been breaking ground for several years on some of Pure Water’s preliminary elements, this fall will mark the start of construction on the system’s three most essential projects.

They are a $356 million sewage purification plant in western Miramar, a $123 million pipeline through much of Clairemont that will bring sewage to that plant, and a $110 million Morena Boulevard pump station to make that possible.

The pipeline, which some Clairemont residents fought with protests and lawsuits, will tear up parts of the community intermittently through 2024. But city officials have created special “working groups” to keep residents up to speed on activity.

When complete in 2025, the first phase of Pure Water will produce 34 million gallons per day of potable drinking water. A larger second phase, slated for completion in 2035, will add another 53 million gallons.

Together, the two phases of Pure Water are expected to shrink the share of San Diego’s water that is imported from about 85 percent down to less than 50 percent.

“The magnitude of today’s announcement simply cannot be overstated,” Mayor Todd Gloria told city, state and federal officials gathered Friday morning in western Miramar. “Pure Water is the largest, most ambitious infrastructure project in our city’s entire history. This is a big deal, everybody.”

Gloria, who previously helped move Pure Water forward as a state Assemblyman and City Council member, praised the project as a bipartisan effort that brought together business and environmental leaders toward a common goal.

In addition to making San Diego’s economy less vulnerable to droughts and sharp cost increases for imported water, the project also will sharply reduce the amount of sewage the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant emits into the ocean.

That dual benefit was always the main attraction of Pure Water, especially with San Diego facing constant pressure from federal officials to spend billions upgrading the Point Loma plant to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act.

Such upgrades are no longer necessary, because sewage from the plant will be purified at the new Miramar plant just east of Interstate 805, stored in Lake Miramar reservoir near Interstate 15, and then piped to homes and businesses as potable water.

Before Pure Water, the city has been recycling about 8 percent of its sewage into water that can be used for irrigation only, not drinking.

Because Pure Water solves so many problems, the city has received many millions in grants and low-interest loans for the project from the state and federal government.

Those include $50 million in the most recent state budget and $120 million in federal money announced Friday.

“Pure Water is a legacy project that promises to deliver a reliable source of clean water to our region for decades to come — that’s why I advocated for $50 million in this year’s state budget,” state Senator Toni Atkins said at Gloria’s Friday news conference. “With worsening drought conditions in our state, this project is needed now more than ever.”

The $120 million brings total federal contributions to the roughly $5 billion project to $733 million. Michael Regan, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said federal officials consider Pure Water a climate change project.

“Climate stress is often experienced as water stress, something California knows all too well,” he said Friday in Miramar. “That’s why we’re prioritizing investments in innovative projects like Pure Water San Diego, which will improve the city’s resilience to climate change impacts, protect water quality and support the local economy by creating jobs.”

Total state contributions are $655 million. In addition, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will give the city a credit of $285.6 million over the next 25 years for the water produced by Pure Water.

Despite that credit and the federal and state contributions, city officials say construction costs of Pure Water will increase local sewer and water bills. City officials haven’t provided updated cost estimates, but the total price tag has previously been estimated at somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion.

That amount must be considered in context, officials say. Upgrades to the Point Loma plant required without Pure Water could have cost the city as much as $3 billion or more.

The second phase of Pure Water is expected to feature pipelines along Harbor Drive near the airport and a second treatment plant in Mission Valley. But designs and locations for the second phase are still underway and haven’t been finalized.

Construction of Pure Water’s key elements had been slated for 2020 and 2021, but the project was delayed many months by lawsuits and controversy over whether it would be governed by a union-friendly Project Labor Agreement. One year ago, the city agreed to use a PLA — the first PLA in city of San Diego history.

Pure Water construction projects are expected to create 4,800 total construction jobs.

In its early phases more than a decade ago, Pure Water proponents fought against critics who focused on the so-called “yuck factor” of drinking purified sewage, which they called “toilet to tap.”

Mayor Gloria said Friday that it took perseverance and education to fight through such opposition, noting that more than 50,000 successful tests have been completed at the Pure Water demonstration facility since it was built in 2011 in western Miramar.

For details on the program, visit

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