Know Your H20, Wastewater, Water Recycling
March 29 2013

Sewage Treatment: Moving Off the Coast?

by Julia Chunn-Heer

A combination of required replacement of outdated sewage treatment facilities, climate change adaptation (sea level rise), and integrated water management strategies may be evolving towards movement of sewage treatment facilities away from the coast, as well as water re-use and improved water quality discharge.

This trend may have gotten its start in Orange County, CA when Surfrider Foundation and many partner organizations advocated for denial of repeated “waivers” to Clean Water Act standards for sewage treatment plant ocean discharges. This effort resulted in cooperation between the Orange County Sanitation District and Orange County Water District to construct what is now considered a world-renowned “Groundwater Replenishment System.” The innovative transition from an outdated sewage treatment plant to a modern wastewater recycling facility was originally opposed by local government. But the County is now voluntarily expanding the capacity of the plant as a result of the economic and environmental benefits.

More recently, the cities of San Diego and Morro Bay are facing similar requirements to upgrade their sewage treatment facilities to meet federal standards. Taking advantage of the lessons learned in Orange County, Surfrider Foundation chapters partnered with others to advocate for modern facilities out of the coastal zone. San Diego has recently completed an important study to construct a wastewater recycling facility off the coast to dramatically reduce the volume of sewage reaching the existing treatment plant, and simultaneously recharging their local water reservoir. (For more historical perspective on this issue, click here).

Morro Bay has gone a step further by rejecting a plan to build an improved plant where the existing facility is located on the beach. The City now plans to move the entire facility inland and recycle the wastewater for near-by agricultural irrigation. 

These seemingly isolated decisions may be setting a trend towards two important principles advocated by Surfrider Foundation: “managed retreat” of coastal development in response to coastal erosion and sea level rise, and “integrated water management” to achieve multi-benefits of pollution reduction, coastal habitat restoration, and minimizing the “embedded energy” in water supply.