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East County’s $950M water recycling project could be in jeopardy as San Diego nixes pipeline deal

East County officials fear a $950 million sewage recycling project could get flushed down the drain because of a pipeline deal gone awry.

Leaders spearheading the endeavor blame San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria — who signed off on building an eight-mile “brine line” as recently as last year but has since reneged on that commitment.

The pipeline would prevent concentrated waste generated by the East County project’s reverse osmosis filtration system from entering into the city’s own $5 billion Pure Water sewage recycling project now under construction. Instead the byproduct would be routed into the city’s larger wastewater system.

San Diego still wants the pipeline to be built, but now it’s calling on the East County Advanced Water Purification Program to foot the roughly $35 million bill.

East County officials said the pipeline is unnecessary and that the city’s demands could undermine already fragile timelines for construction. The project’s cost, officials said, has ballooned in recent years from $640 million because of inflation, surging construction costs and supply chain disruptions.

“We face a very real risk of delays, major cost increases or even worse,” said Allen Carlisle, CEO and general manager of Padre Dam Municipal Water District and administrator for the East County recycling project. “Ultimately, the feasibility of the project is at stake.”

East County’s sewage recycling endeavor — a partnership between San Diego County, El Cajon, Helix Water District and Padre Dam Municipal Water District — has been scheduled to come online as soon as 2026. It would create about 2,500 local jobs and provide up to 30 percent of East County’s drinking-water supply.

Gloria’s office declined multiple interview requests for this story. But the city said in an email that it recently learned its agreement to pay for the pipeline would violate Prop. 218, a state law that prohibits raising property taxes for services not directly benefiting homeowners. The city did not explain why it needed to pay for the project with property taxes.

Carlisle said the pipeline — which would run from a pump station on the border of Santee through Mission Trails Regional Park — is unnecessary. He said the city has demanded its construction despite multiple studies showing that the East County Advanced Water Purification Program can safely discharge its waste into the Pure Water system.

“We don’t know what their exact concerns are,” Carlisle said. “We spent about 18 months modeling this with the city staff going back to 2018. Both teams could not find an impact to the very small amount of residuals going into this massive system.”

The city countered in its email that “high-strength waste … could disrupt the treatment process and compromise the water quality of the recycled drinking water.”

Carlisle said that as a result of the conflict, the city is now backing out of another longstanding deal: transfer of the East Mission Gorge Pump Station. The city-owned property in Santee was to be sold to the East County Advanced Water Purification Program for about $2 million.

East County officials said ownership of the pump station is all they need to proceed, but the city is now holding up the deal as a way to force them into paying for the pipeline.

“What the city is doing is unethical,” said Steve Goble, an El Cajon councilman and part of the governing board overseeing the proposed East County plant. “You cannot hold this thing hostage to try to get a better deal on a fully executed agreement.”

The recycling project’s governing board is slated to discuss at a public hearing Thursday the idea of taking the pump station property by eminent domain. The move could prove contentious and trigger a court battle.

Reporter Blake Nelson contributed to this report.

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