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East County Residents Speak Out Against Proposed El Monte Valley Water Reclamation Project

About 60 people were in attendance, and almost a dozen residents spoke out, mostly in opposition to the project.

Dozens of (HWD) and Padre Dam Municipal Water District customers turned out at a public meeting on Tuesday night to discuss the controversial El Monte Valley Mining, Reclamation and Groundwater Recharge Project.

The project essentially aims to purchase wastewater from Padre Dam and purify it using advanced technologies to create clean, sustainable drinking water for the district's more than 260,000 customers.

Dubbed "toilet-to-tap" by many opponents of the project, HWD says that reclamation would create 5 million gallons of water per day. That figure, when extrapolated out to a year, would be able to serve 15,000 households—or 15 percent of customers—in the district.

The meeting opened with a presentation on the benefits of the project, a description of the purification process, and which communities would benefit from the project. Tim Smith, principal engineer and project manager, gave the presentation. Tom Barnes, director of Southern California ESA Water and project manager for the environmental impact report (EIR), outlined the California Environmental Quality Act-mandated EIR and the process by which it is written and submitted.

The meeting was then opened up to public comments, and many residents and HWD customers took the opportunity to blast the board for trying to move forward with the controversial project.

Patricia Bertalan, a Blossom Valley resident, said of the proposal, “Can it be completely ruled out that there won’t be long-term consequences from drinking reclaimed water that has been contaminated with pharmaceutical waste? The effects may not be known for 10 or 20 years.”

She added that most people who are in support of the project are not the ones who will be most impacted by it.

"Has HWD done a survey of only those customers who will be drinking reclaimed sewer water to see if they are in favor or not?" Bertalan asked. "What does it matter if it’s supported by agencies and people who it isn’t going to affect? To call someone a supporter of this project who will not be intimately affected by it is totally meaningless. Residents should have the ultimate say on whether the project moves forward or is terminated.”

After her comments, the majority of the people in attendance clapped and cheered.

In addition to reclaiming wastewater and converting it to clean drinking water, the project has two other aspects associated with it: sand mining and riverbed restoration. The following is taken from the El Monte Valley project website:

Sand mining component—The mining project will take place over a 10-year period in the central areas of the project site. The mining will help re-contour the riverbed for the restoration project, produce aggregate to address San Diego County’s aggregate shortage and generate needed funding for the water and riverbed restoration components. The mining will be sequenced with restoration of the site as mining is completed to minimize impacts.

Riverbed Restoration component—The riverbed restoration element is a new and visionary approach, combining a water supply solution with the additional benefits of habitat protection and community recreational use. The purified water will help raise the water table in the El Monte Valley to allow restoration of the riverbed with native plants and creation of a public recreation area. The recreation area will provide many benefits for generations to come, including trails for hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian use, as well as wildlife habitat and educational opportunities.

It is the sand mining component of the project that had many residents of the El Monte Valley up in arms. Barnes said that in order to facilitate the transporting of about 12 million tons of sand into and out of the valley, about 500 haul trucks will be on the road each day (250 in and 250 out) over the course of eight years.

Bertalan's husband, Ken, was infuriated by the impact the additional traffic would have on the residents' morning and evening commutes.

“I don’t know if you guys have done the calculations on this, but in an eight-hour day there are 480 minutes," he said. "You guys are gonna run 500 trucks a day—that’s a truck a minute.  That’s huge. I’m surprised that the air pollution control district doesn’t shut this down right now.”

The Bartalans also mentioned the impact to the wear and tear on the roadways that the additional trucks would create, questioning who is going to have to pay for resurfacing and if the resurfacing would be done in a timely manner.

Barnes said noise, vibration, dust, air emissions, disturbance of biological resources, aesthetic impact, and groundwater quality are all factors that will be considered in the sand mining aspect, which will be assessed and quantified. Haul traffic on roadways will also be a key issue to be considered.

The project does have its supporters, as well. Belinda Smith, speaking on behalf of the 5,000 members of the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, praised the board for moving forward.

"This is a giant step in the right direction as far as we are concerned," she said. "Just to address the toilet-to-tap: At Surfrider, we like to say it’s not toilet-to-tap, it’s toilet-to-treatment-to-treatment-to-treatment-to-treatment-to-treatment-to-tap. It’s a really important concept for people to understand is that we are already drinking wastewater, depending on the source of the water we already import."

Phillip Pride, a member of the San Diego Audub0n Society, who admittedly said he does not live in the HWD boundaries, said his group is also in support.

"I don’t know that it’s understood that there is no such thing as an urban potable water supply that is not already toilet-to-tap," he said. "It’s only a matter of where it comes from and how good is your processing system. I’m quite confident that the district will make every effort to put high quality water into the system."

The purification is an extensive process that involves many different methods, including microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide disinfection, and ozone filtration. First the wastewater is run through a microfiltration system, which removes small suspended particles, protozoa, bacteria and viruses from water. The reverse osmosis process then forces the water through a thin membrane to remove minerals, contaminants, salts, viruses and pesticides.

Ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide disinfection serve to kill any contaminants, and is the same process used to sterilize medical instruments in hospitals and dentists offices. Finally, ozone is injected into the water to kill any additional contaminants. Ozone is the three-atom form of oxygen and is able to destroy more contaminants than chlorine—and more effectively.

But the toilet-to-tap debate aside, the overarching contentiousness of the evening was what impact the mining and restoration projects would have on El Monte Valley residents' way of life.

"Those in Lakeside and Blossom Valley who paid for those houses with million-dollar views will be affected," said Mylton Cyphert, a Lakeside resident who is the co-founder of the East County Community Action Coalition. "Our million dollar views will be taken away. We want to be paid for it. We want compensation for loss of our way of life and our million-dollar views. It’s a real impact and will have real impact on our property values.

"This is one of San Diego County’s last remaining scenic corridors, and it is deemed as such," Cyphert continued. "We want to know what it’s going to look like when you’re done."

Linda Hayes, who lives on El Monte Road, echoed her neighbor's sentiment.

"We love that valley. It’s infuriating and frustrating that a project like this can come in and totally decimate not only all of the animal life and vegetation that is going to be in its path, but decimate our way of life," she said. "The noise [from the trucks] is going to negatively impact us for the rest of our lives. Please, save us. Please help save the resource of this beautiful scenic corridor."

Barnes said the EIR will be published in the fall. He said another public meeting will take place to allow the public to analyze the findings in the EIR and provide further input. He added that the EIR is scheduled to be completed sometime in the spring of 2012.

Residents and customers who would like to submit written comments are encouraged to do so by e-mailing elmonte@helixwater.org

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