No Crap Tap: Recycled sewage helps solve water shortage & tastes good!
December 29, 2019
Note: this article was originally published by the OC Voice print newspaper in June, 2008.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
John Earl is the publisher and editor for the Surf City Voice and Poseidon Town. In the late 1980s, he covered local politics for the Huntington Beach News. In 2005, he was a founding member and first president of Residents for Responsible Desal, which he left in 2006 to become editor of the print newspaper, OC Voice.