Resistance to Recycling of Water Will Wear Down Drop by Drop


Water is not a finite resource, a point worth remembering in Los Angeles County, which imports more than 80 percent of its water from sources hundreds of miles away.

It's certainly worth remembering now that water rates are heading up, due to a combination of a severe drought in the Southwestern U.S., an aging infrastructure and tougher water quality standards. Just last month, the Los Angeles City Council approved an 11 percent water rate increase, and more hikes are likely to follow.

As the water levels of the Colorado River keep dropping, attention should focus on developing other supplies.

One of the most popular alternatives over the years has been desalinization, or turning seawater into drinking water through a distilling process. It remains a good idea, perhaps the best long-term prospect for ocean-adjacent California. But the cost is still prohibitive for a wide-scale program.

A more plausible short-term option is water reclamation, a program already in place on a limited scale. The reclamation process collects wastewater from the residences and businesses of one geographic area, treats it and then spits it out for non-drinking water uses in another area.

L.A. County currently has two working plants. The Los Angeles Glendale Water Reclamation Plant collects 20 million gallons per day and then distributes the treated water to two golf courses in Griffith Park, to a Glendale power plant for cooling purposes, and to the landscaping along the Golden State Freeway. The 40-million-gallon-a-day Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant pumps treated water to golf courses and parks in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.

"A lot of the water brought into Los Angeles goes to irrigating green space. There's plenty of reclaimed water for those purposes," said Joe Haworth, information officer for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.

Although these indirect water uses are helpful, the system must be expanded to residential customers, who use two-thirds of the water supply in the city.

It will be a challenge. Four years ago, water officials presented a $55 million proposal to recycle billions of gallons of treated sewage water to drinking water. The project called for wastewater to be treated through a purification system and then percolated through the earth to ground water basins. The ground would serve as a natural purifier, filtering out viruses or bacteria.

But the idea was quickly dubbed "toilet to tap" and the unpleasant and misguided perceptions sunk any chance for success.

Richard Berk, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, captured the dilemma in a 2000 survey of Los Angeles residents.

He said survey questions made it clear that the treated wastewater is the same quality as tap water, but respondents balked at the idea of using it for drinking or cooking. "There's a lot of superstition everywhere. It's just an emotional reaction," Berk said. "There's no reason for wasting the water when you can use it over and over again."

Increased water rates will not be enough for the public to suddenly embrace programs that would recycle wastewater to drinking water.

That might come by watching projects in other areas. In late April, the Orange County Sanitation District board unanimously approved a recharge project that will pump treated sewage into a filtration plant that will then allow the water to percolate through the ground into the reservoir.

"I think everybody is looking at Orange County to see if the recharge program works," said Adan Ortega, vice president of external affairs for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Another key would be a marketing campaign to let consumers know that the recycled water is no different than any other kind (most of the drinking water that comes from the Colorado River has been recycled upstream). The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power has made small educational efforts in the past, such as staff members drinking the recycled water in their own offices.

Whatever L.A.'s source of water, conservation will always be crucial and on that front Angelenos have proven quite adept: Residents use the same amount of water as they did 20 years ago, even though there are 700,000 more people in the area.

And it's pretty easy on the pocketbook, said Gerald Gewe, chief operating officer of water for the DWP. "Conservation is always cheapest," he said.


Proposal: Increase the use of recycled wastewater for irrigation and for tap water purposes

Obstacles: Residents' aversion to so-called "toilet-to-tap" drinking water

Cost: Proposed plant would have cost $55 million four years ago; costs would be offset by reduction of reliance on more expensive imported water

Time Frame: Within the next five to 10 years

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