1st Phase of Reclaimed-Water Plan OKd
Project will recycle sewage to drinking water

By SEEMA MEHTA, Times Staff Writer

     Orange County officials Wednesday night overwhelmingly approved the first stage of a controversial $600-million plan to turn sewage into drinking water, joining a growing number of California communities that are trying to reduce their dependency on pricey--and sometimes uncertain--imported water.
     After years of planning and debate, the boards of the county's water and sanitation districts Wednesday night approved the first phase of the so-called ground-water replenishment project.
     "This is a step toward reliability and quality for the drinking water in central and northern Orange County," said Lisa Lawson, spokeswoman for the Orange County Sanitation District.
     Critics charge that the public-works project--the most costly in county history--is too expensive and unnecessary, saying adequate, reliable water is already available.
     Peer Swan, an Orange County Sanitation District board member who voted against the project, said the costs are based on cheap energy and low-interest loans, neither of which is guaranteed.
     "This project got approved on faulty numbers," he said. Many of those who spoke at the three-hour public hearing in Fountain Valley were concerned that the project would result in dirtier water being sent into the ocean.
     The sanitation district would be sending a smaller volume of treated sewage into the ocean, but it would contain higher concentrations of pathogens.
     "The cost is increased pollution of the ocean," said Jan Vandersloot.

     Supporters Cite Growing Demand

     But during the meeting, proponents stressed that creating a reliable, drought-proof local water supply is key to meeting the county's booming population demands.
     "Orange County continues to be one of the nation's most popular places to live and play in and work," said Irv Pickler, chairman of the Joint Groundwater Replenishment System Cooperative Committee. "Tonight we are here to vote on this visionary water project that will help maintain our enviable position."
     Orange County Water District directors voted 9 to 1 to support the project. Orange County Sanitation District directors voted 18 to 6.
     The sewer and water agencies will take treated sewage and purify it at a Fountain Valley plant with microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light. Officials said the process will create cleaner water than what flows out of most faucets now.
     About 60% of the current water supply comes from local ground water, while the rest is imported.
     Under the replenishment program, some of the highly treated waste water will be used for irrigation and for a seawater intrusion barrier designed to stop underground saltwater from tainting local water supplies.
     But most will be piped along the Santa Ana River to holding ponds in Anaheim, where it will percolate into a large underground aquifer.
     About two years later, the water will be pumped out of the ground, chlorinated and sent to homes and businesses in the water district's service area in northern and central parts of the county.
     The 350-square-mile service area currently has about 2.3 million people and uses about 500,000 acre-feet of water per year. One acre-foot can serve two families of four for a year.
     By 2020, northern and central Orange County is expected to grow to 2.8 million people, who will require 180,000 more acre-feet of water. Without the ground-water replenishment system, increase in demand would mean buying more expensive imported water.

     First Phase to Cost About $352 Million

     The project is divided into three phases. The first phase, approved Wednesday night, will provide 70,000 extra acre-feet per year by 2004 and will cost about $352 million. Planners have secured about $57 million in grants, including $37 million from the water bond passed by California voters in 2000. The water district and the sanitation district will split the remaining cost. An extra 60 cents will be added to the average monthly water bill to pay for Phase One, said a sanitation district spokeswoman.
     Recycled water is used across the nation for various purposes, from making newsprint to watering freeway landscaping to making snow for ski slopes. In 2000, the State Water Resources Control Board estimated that 401,910 acre-feet of reclaimed water was used in California. Nearly half is used to water crops.
     In parts of Los Angeles County, existing ground water has been replenished for decades with treated waste water. But other, more recent plans to turn sewage into drinking water met considerable opposition.
     In 1996, a plan to use treated waste water to replenish a San Gabriel Valley aquifer had to be halved and relocated to avoid Miller Brewing Co. wells. A $100-million proposal in San Diego was scuttled because of public resistance to drinking purified human waste.
     Orange County's ground-water replenishment proposal has largely been spared criticism about the safety--or even the aesthetics--of drinking the highly treated sewage.
     But activist Joey Racano said: "Reverse osmosis is not foolproof. We do run a risk of injecting viruses into our drinking water, and no matter how closely monitored, by the time mistakes are discovered, remedies will be both costly and late in coming."