Phase of Reclaimed-Water Plan OKd
Project will recycle sewage to drinking water
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
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
"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
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
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
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."