No Crap Tap: Recycled sewage helps solve water shortage & tastes good!

Note: this article was originally published by the OC Voice print newspaper in June, 2008.

Visitors enjoy a refreshing drink of fully treated and delicious sewer water.
CHEERS: At the end of the GWRS plant tour, members of Residents for Responsible Desal each enjoy a fresh glass of recycled sewer water. PHOTO BY MARINKA HORACK

By John Earl

If you live in Orange County, pat yourself on the back the next time you sit down on the toilet with your copy of the OC Voice, because you’re helping to solve California’s water shortage.

Think of it as one way of giving back to nature what you take from it when you water your lawn, hose down your drive way, fill your large swimming pool, shower for 1 hour or flush your toilet 10 times a day. It may be the one way in which “wasting” water helps to ensure your future water supplies

Water problems aren’t unique to California, or course.  Drought induced by climate change, as well as poor resource management, including inefficient water use by agriculture and residential homes, linked with population growth have created water shortages in at least one-third of the world.

Although social and economic inequalities associated with world trade policies and privatization of water resources have made the world’s poor suffer the most from water shortages, economic wealth alone can no longer guarantee a secure water supply, not even for the richest nation and most prolific over user of natural resources on earth, the United States. Arid areas of the nation are suffering from years of cyclical drought exacerbated by global warming. Even in the wetter areas of the east and southeast, Americans are experiencing severe water shortages that have led to political and regional conflicts.

Big corporate investors as well as grass roots environmentalists realize what’s at stake. “The survival of the human race in the next millennium will be tied to the successes of managing fresh water,” said Aly Shady, president of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (a group supported by international banking and investment interests) in a recent position paper.

An Arid Land
The problem is acute in southern California, an arid environment that depends largely on water shipped from northern California or the Colorado River, resources that are rapidly diminishing, says Ron Wildermuth, Communications Director for the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD).

It’s a matter of the lifestyle that we have chosen by deciding to live in an arid climate, Wildermuth pointed out, during a recent guided tour he conducted for local water activists of OCSD’s new Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS) located at its Fountain Valley plant. It’s the largest purification facility of its kind in the world and it will ultimately be able to produce 250 million gallons of distilled quality water from sewage each day. All things considered, GWR may be California’s single best hope for avoiding a water catastrophe.

Microfiltration helps make drinkable sewer water.
Tour of the OCWD/OCSD Groundwater Replenishment facility in Fountain Valley. PHOTO BY MARINKA HORACK

“There’s two things the astronauts can see with the naked eye from the space station,” he tells the group, “One is the great wall of China and the other is the water canals of California. We use more energy moving water than other states use for everything…So we’ve built this metropolis in an arid region with no water. And now we have to find water for this arid region with no water.”

Currently, a lot of the water receive by southern California is stored in 1,250 damns built in northern California and then moved south to Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. The source of that water is snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. South Orange County relies on northern snow pack and the Colorado River for 95 percent of its water. Huntington Beach gets two-thirds of its water from local groundwater wells supplied by the Santa Ana River.

But snow pack levels in the Sierra Nevada are down 22 percent below normal, the result of a 50 year warming trend, according to that which falls as rain instead of snow. That means less water for both California and Colorado watersheds. Due to being overtaxed by agriculture and urban sprawl, only 0.1 percent of the water from the Colorado River makes it to its mouth, which is basically a big mud pit a lot of the time.

Water Supply Plans
In March, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use by 2020. In response, two separate bills have been introduced in the legislature to encourage conservation. Assembly Bill 2175, the Water Efficiency and Security Act, increases water use efficiency for new developments and contains global warming reduction measures. AB2175 would require the state to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water by 2030. The legislation is supported by conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club, Desal Response Group and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

Predicted population increases for the same years targeted in the proposed bills add to the need for corrective water use measures. By 2020 the state will grow by 15 million people, including 7 million in Southern California and up to 500,000 in Orange County, according to the OCSD.  State water shortages in the magnitude of 2 – 6 million acre-feet of water per year (1 acre-foot or 326,000 gallons quenches the thirst of two families of four for a year) are predicted by the California Department of Water Resources.

The situation is so dire that the federal government announced that it will cut off all surplus water deliveries to California from the Colorado River by 2016.  The needed restoration of the San Francisco – San Joaquin Bay Delta ecosystem due to over use by agriculture and deteriorating levees, according to the OCSD, has resulted in cut backs in water deliveries to southern California. Central and northern Orange County rely on that water to help replenish a vast lake resting under the Santa Ana River basin that supplies much of their water.

That underground lake also serves as a natural barrier to seawater coming up the Santa Ana River from the ocean; if its level doesn’t remain high enough-and it had dropped to alarming levels in recent years-our source of drinking water would become contaminated by salt water intrusion.

The GRS system will inject its treated water back into that underground basin, protecting it from the ocean while providing a large source of drought free drinking water.

“We decided that we would purify our water, expand the sea barrier and even have some water left over so that we could refill our groundwater basin and delay indefinitely the need for another ocean outfall (a plume of sewage discharged into the ocean),” Wildermuth says.

PR Problem
Toilet to tap, as GWR is often referred to, is a PR problem because many people are disturbed by the thought of drinking water that came from their toilets. But the water is clean and healthy beyond question.  Not only that, it’s tasty, as I found out when I drank a glass of it at the end of the tour.

That’s because the treatment process involves 4 steps from the time it is flushed down your toilet to the time it comes back out of your water faucets. The first 3 steps are microfiltration, reverse osmosis and then treatment with ultra violet light and hydrogen peroxide as a disinfectant.

During microfiltration the sewage water passes through 26 basins containing 608 pipe shaped modules, each of which contain 15,000 straws that form a membrane. “It’s not unlike when you have a soda and a straw,” Wildermuth explains, “the soda comes up your straw, but the ice stays in the cup…the holes in the sides of these straws are 300 times smaller than a human hair. So you put a vacuum on top of the straw, with about 10 per square inches of pressure, and pull all of the water through the straws.”

STAGE 3: Each sink from back to front represents developing stages of sewage water treatment. PHOTO BY MARINKA HORACK

From there, the treated water goes through reverse osmosis; a process that removes allows only water molecules to pass through another membrane, leaving out minerals, salts, viruses, pharmaceuticals and other pollutants. After that, ultra violet light treatment combined with hydrogen peroxide disinfect the water, removing any trace organics that might have snuck through earlier stages of filtration.

At that point, some minerals are placed back into the water to prevent it from corroding the concrete pipes that it will later pass through. That minerals also improve the water’s taste. The water is ready to drink at that point, but its journey doesn’t end there.

The fourth and final step is to inject the treated water into the groundwater basin. That is done either directly along the seawater barrier to prevent salt water intrusion or by allowing the water to percolate down to the underground basin, a process that takes about 6 months but helps to naturally clean the water even more.

Limited Alternatives
To those who are still not thirsty for GWR, Wildermuth says that there are not many viable alternatives for dealing with our lack of water. “We can take water from farmers and drum beat on them to be more efficient. We can take water out of the ocean. Or we can use ground water. And I think reusing our own water is a good start,” he explains.

Wildermuth’s audience consists of 16 members of Residents 4 Responsible Desal (R4RD), a Huntington Beach group whose members are opposed to a desalination plant approved by the city but still awaiting approval by the California Coastal Commission. R4RD opposes the facility, which will be built and owned by Poseidon Resources, Inc. and would make up to 50 million gallons of drinkable water from seawater daily, but they are very impressed by GWR. They want to know what he thinks of the Poseidon plan.

Wildermuth carefully sidesteps that question, repeating the official OCSD line that “we need to diversify our water supply in southern California,” and that desalination will part of the future supply mix in areas where groundwater basins don’t exist.

But Wildermuth and the official OCSD literature point to a publicly owned and different type of desalination plant than Poseidon, proposed for the city of Dana Point in south Orange County, which has no groundwater basin source. That type of desalination facility is considered much more friendly to the environment than the Poseidon plant because it would suck in seawater from under the ocean shore rather than through the antiquated cooling system like the one that the AES electric generating plant will provide for Poseidon.

Few critics of Poseidon deny the need for desalination plants when properly designed and built where they are needed. But the existence of GWR, which officially went online in January, makes it hard to see why Poseidon’s project is needed in Huntington Beach.

In short, GWR produces far more water for much less money (triple the production at $525 vs. over $1500 per acre-foot) than Poseidon’s desalination plant would. Unlike Poseidon, it would not kill marine life or damage the environment in any way. And the OCSD, which runs the GWR facility, is fully accountable to the public and its representatives, instead of stock holders.

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