Marsi Steirer, deputy director for the City of San Diego's Public Utilities Department, sat down with Brown and Caldwell Senior Vice President Cindy Paulson to talk about the challenges and successes of recycled drinking water and where water resources management is headed. This interview is available exclusively to BC Water News readers, and is the type of content you receive free with your subscription. Read and enjoy.
July 24, 2012

10 Minutes With …

Marsi Steirer

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities in California water today?
We’re still talking about some of the same issues today as we were when I first joined the water department in the late ’80s: the Bay-Delta, for instance. I don’t think we’ve been able to solve outstanding differences. That’s clearly one of the challenges. On a statewide basis, our traditional water supplies are oversubscribed because of a growing population and continue to be impacted by drought, climate change, regulations and other restrictions. Other challenges are the increased costs and the overall affordability of water. The majority of water that we use in the city is imported. The price of that water has increased about 85 percent or more during the last eight years. So our customers are really feeling that.

I think the opportunity we have, both locally as well as on a statewide basis, is to work with our customers and educate them about where our water comes from so they have a better understanding of water issues. One of the positive outcomes from the work that the city has done in conservation and outreach is that our customers are using the same amount of water as they did 31 years ago, even though our population has grown by about 500,000. Our customers understand the need to conserve water and rallied around the cause. I see that as a real opportunity, having your customers engaged in solutions.

How do you see recycled water helping to address some of our future challenges?
I see it playing a major role. There’s been continued acceptance over the years, in terms of recycled water being a viable source for industrial purposes, for landscaping, for irrigation. I think that California is a leader in this area, both for using recycled water in “purple pipes,” for separate uses and for integrating recycled water into our drinking water supply. The Orange County Groundwater Replenishment Project has set the bar on the latter. I think that will help mainstream the whole indirect potable reuse question.

You have been a real leader on indirect potable reuse, how have you been able to move from “toilet to tap” to a positive public perception of recycled water in the last several years?
We’ve been engaging stakeholders since 2004, making presentations, providing a lot of information on our website, engaging the city council members who have moved this issue forward by approving and funding the demonstration project. More than a year ago, the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune came out about the “Yuck Factor” associated with recycled water and basically said, “Get over it.”

All of this work has been important for the demonstration project and our Advanced Water Purification Facility. We have a presentation that’s followed by a tour and that has been significant in reaching members of the public (more than 2,400) who have taken the time to see the process and the quality of the water that comes out of the tap.

We’ve been keeping track of public opinion and have done a lot of research. Since 2004, the survey numbers are an indication of the change in public perception that favor using advanced treated recycled water as an addition to the drinking water supply: 26 percent in 2004 and 68 percent in 2011. Opposition went from 64 percent in 2004 to 23 percent in 2011. We’re obviously proud of that, and it’s a testament to the work that the city staff has done, elected officials and our stakeholders.

What do you see as some of the greatest remaining challenges on potable reuse?
One of the challenges for us is that there aren’t any regulations for indirect potable reuse through reservoir augmentation. We’ve been working closely with regulators for the last seven or eight years. For both indirect and direct (potable reuse), having a framework that doesn’t formally exist is a challenge, especially if you want to move forward with a project.

Although I do believe we’ll have a response from our regulators that we’ll put in the final demonstration project report to be completed later this year. The challenge is somewhat represented in the legislation of AB 2398, and the idea that we would move forward and no longer call advanced recycled water a “waste” when it’s so pure. The idea that we’re all downstream and water is used over and over again is a foreign concept to the general public. We put that information front and center in terms of our outreach activities. An informed and educated public can make better decisions.

NPDES facilities
Municipal Wastewater NPDES Facilities

There are many stakeholders and agendas in California water resource management today, how do you think we can take the biggest steps forward together?
To start, I think it is important to recognize that there are many stakeholders and agendas in California, different opinions from various groups, and regional differences. We need to agree that is one of the challenges to strategize on as a state to move forward. In San Diego, we’ve been very successful in working with a very diverse coalition (labor, business, bio-tech, taxpayers and environmental groups). Coming up with a uniform understanding and having a goal in sight is the only way we can be successful and take steps forward together. In California, we spend so much time talking past each other and what our differences are. We need to find out what the commonalities are, stick to them and try to move forward.

If you could change one thing about California water policy, what would it be?
I’d have the Legislature adopt AB 2398 and the governor sign it into law. That’s a really big first step. [On May 29, the state Assembly passed AB 2398; it now goes to the state Senate.]

What do you see as the top priorities for your agency over the next few years? The next decade?
The rising cost of imported water. I think it’s important for us to work with our customers and communicate to them so they have a better understanding, not only of the value of water, but the new paradigm: You’re using less or buying less and you’re paying more. People don’t understand that. It’s even more problematic because, due to the rising cost of imported water, it’s more difficult for us to get rate increases to cover local system repairs and water reliability projects. That’s all interwoven. It’s short-term and long-term. It’s here to stay.

What’s something people might be surprised to know about your agency?
We’re the fourth largest landowner in San Diego County and own more than 42,000 acres. Much of this land was purchased for our watershed protection. We have a complex water system. Due to the topography of the city, there are 129 pressure zones. The department ranks highly in terms of generating renewable energy, developing between 18 to 19MW through biogas and solar.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without at work?
My staff. I couldn’t live without them and I wouldn’t be successful without them.

What’s the most significant project you’ve been involved with in your career?
The last 10 years or so have been associated with water reuse, both initiating the Water Reuse Study that I worked on between 2003 and 2006, which led to the demonstration project that the city council approved in 2007. We’re in the final stages of assessing and monitoring the advanced water purification facility. The final report will be issued later this year, and that will lead to a decision by the city’s elected officials whether to proceed with a full-scale project.

What’s on your to-do list?
We just submitted our Recycled Water Master Plan update as well as our Recycled Water Study. The master plan is updated every five years and focuses on nonpotable recycled water options. The Water Reuse Study proves a 20-year look at how we could increase the use of recycled water, primarily through indirect potable reuse and reducing ocean discharges. These reports are on the city’s website.

We’re also working on finalizing our long-range water resources plan, which is another 20- to 25-year study to evaluate the various options available in terms of developing local water supplies. And we’re about two-thirds of the way done with that.


Marsi Steirer

Name: Marsi A. Steirer

Title: Deputy Director, City of San Diego Public Utilities Department

Background: Marsi serves as deputy director for the Business Support branch of the San Diego Public Utilities Department. She has been in the water industry for more than 20 years and has worked on key department initiatives, including the Strategic Plan for Water Supply and the city’s Water Conservation Program.

At present, she is serving as project director for the Water Purification Demonstration Project, which will evaluate the feasibility of using advanced water treatment on recycled wastewater for augmentation of supplies in a local reservoir.

Marsi is a member of the American Water Works Association, Water Environment Federation, and the Association of California Water Agencies. She received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Riverside, and a master's degree from American University in Washington, D.C. She also has taught a Water Resources Planning class through the UCSD Extension Program.

In March, she was named Recycled Water Advocate of the Year by the WateReuse Association.

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