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Mixed Reviews for Water Reclamation Plan : Resources: Miller Brewery and other opponents of the project say it could pose health risks. Environmentalists and water agencies embrace it as a way to help ‘drought-proof’ the San Gabriel Valley.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Water that once was flushed down a toilet doesn’t conjure up the same image as, say, Rocky Mountain spring water.

And that’s the thrust of bitter arguments by Miller Brewery and its allies in what they are calling the “toilet-to-tap” folly. They oppose a plan to replenish the San Gabriel Valley’s underground drinking water supply with highly treated sewage water.

Proposing what has been done for decades elsewhere in Southern California and around the world, two local water agencies want to help “drought-proof” the San Gabriel Valley by annually pumping 3 billion to 10 billion gallons of reclaimed water into underground drinking supplies.

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Like previous battles over water--precious as gold in the Southern California semidesert--this debate has produced an array of attention-grabbing claims and a strange set of political bedfellows.

In a barrage of letters to the water agencies, Miller, which annually draws 1 billion gallons of water from underground to make beer at its Irwindale plant, has hammered away: The plan could increase the breeding ground of disease-carrying mosquitoes. It could foster health problems for infants, caused by nitrates in water. It could threaten sensitive plant and animal life.

Pure and simple, Miller attorney Terry O. Kelly said, “We don’t want the water changed . . . don’t want the purity altered.”

Other opponents, working under the banner of “Citizens For Clean Water” and organized by physician and former West Covina Mayor Dr. Forest S. Tennant, have raised questions about health risks.

Once an adviser to the National Football League on how its players could beat drug problems, Tennant is using his medical and political connections--and his money--to marshal forces against the plan. Newspaper ads financed by Tennant suggest that cancer, dementia, birth defects, hormone deficiency and cardiac disease might arise from the reclaimed water. Tennant also claims that the project will deflect efforts to clean up the heavily contaminated San Gabriel Basin.

Equally intense is the campaign in favor of reclaimed water. An army of environmentalists have lined up alongside water agencies they’ve fought for years backing the plan to build a $25-million pipeline and pumping station to carry water from Whittier Narrows to Irwindale. The water agencies plan to reduce the amount of water they import from Northern California, making up the difference with reclaimed water purchased locally.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County are echoing the views of their nemeses the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay and the Mono Lake Committee.

By reducing the demand for water from Northern California that is imported to more than 1 million residents in the San Gabriel Basin, these unlikely allies say, the project will benefit fish and wildlife from the Sierra to the Sacramento-Delta Bay.

“It is morally wrong for residents of the San Gabriel Valley to continue to waste water by using it only once while importing large quantities of water from other parts of the state,” said David Czamanske, chairman of the water committee of the Sierra Club’s Angeles chapter.

Czamanske and others say their opponents are engaging in unscientific fear-mongering.

“Citizens for Clean Water . . . has resorted to unusually blatant alarmist tactics,” said William R. Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District, which has used reclaimed water to replenish drinking supplies for 40 years. Reclaimed water is also used to supplement underground drinking water supplies along the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel rivers in southern Los Angeles County, and a similar project is being planned for the San Fernando Valley.

Under the San Gabriel Valley proposal, reclaimed water that now flows into the ocean would be piped from a sewage treatment plant at Whittier Narrows. It would replace as much as 80% of the water that annually has to be imported to the San Gabriel Valley from Northern California and the Colorado River.

The water would go north into vast rocky berms at a central distribution point by the junction of the Foothill Freeway (21) and the San Gabriel River Freeway (605) in Irwindale.

The proposal by the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and the similarly named San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District would be financed by an average $10 annual charge to consumers. In the long run, water officials say, the reclaimed water will cost less than the imported water.

The water agencies and other proponents of the plan say reclaimed water is nearly as pure as spring water.

At the San Jose Creek Treatment Plant at Whittier Narrows and other water treatment plants, sewage water goes through a three-stage process. First, the tawny-colored waste water enters huge tanks where solid materials are removed.

In the second stage, the dirty water is mixed with bacteria, which eat dissolved organic materials. The excess bacteria, which are constantly multiplying, are sent back into the sewer system for further treatment.

In the third stage, the water goes through a seven-foot-thick filter of coal, sand and gravel to remove particles that could harbor viruses. Every 24 hours the filters are cleaned with fresh water. The reclaimed water is chlorinated and then dechlorinated with the use of sulfur dioxide gas.

Although state law says reclaimed water coming directly from a plant cannot be served for human consumption, it meets all drinking water standards, according to Earle Hartling, an engineer with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. Daily, the Sanitation Districts turn out millions of gallons of reclaimed water from seven sewage treatment plants in the county.

The quality of reclaimed water, Hartling said, would be further improved when it is pumped into rocky berms, or spreading grounds. It would filter below through hundreds of feet of earth, he said, and would linger for months, allowing for removal of any impurities.

Moreover, officials say you would have to drink a gallon a day of reclaimed water for 1,000 years before you would contract anything that would make you close to sick.

To prove his point, at a standing-room-only meeting in El Monte last month, Hartling drank from a container of gin-clear reclaimed water.

He was responding to a dare by a vocal opponent at the board meeting of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. The district board, which could give the project the final go-ahead by February, had called the meeting to get reaction to the draft of an environmental study on the project.

The challenge to Hartling came from opponent E.T. Snell, who, to make his point, dressed as a clown, his hair frizzy green and his face pale with white makeup.

Dressed more sedately but speaking with equal fervor, Tennant, who has a chain of medical clinics throughout Los Angeles County, said he was worried that the project will interfere with the cleanup of pollution that severely contaminates the 175-square-mile San Gabriel Basin.

Declaring it one of the most complex water pollution problems of its kind in the nation, federal officials put the basin on the Superfund list of environmental cleanup priorities in 1984.

For decades, solvents and degreasing agents from industries and businesses made their way underground, fouling one-fourth of the 400 wells in the region. Estimates for the cleanup have ranged from several hundred million dollars to $1 billion.

Tennant objects to the reclaimed water project, he said, because it takes energy and dollars away from the cleanup. And he is skeptical that reclaimed water poses no health risk, in spite of the fact that it has been relied upon elsewhere and some studies have detected no medical problems.

“It’s time we own up to what we know and don’t know scientifically,” he said, adding that medical science continues to identify new diseases. Project opponents, he said, “are just saying . . . why take the risk if you don’t have to?”

Tennant, Miller and a coalition of retail water suppliers support a compromise that calls for using the reclaimed water for irrigation of recreational fields and for industrial and commercial uses.

But there was little tenor of compromise at the recent El Monte meeting.

Marvin J. Cichy, a board member of the Upper District, suggested that Miller and its parent company Philip Morris have no business talking about potential adverse health effects of reclaimed water when their products do little to foster health.

Still, others on the five-member board expressed more openness. Board president Kenneth R. Manning, saying he was listening to all sides, said: “I’m not sure where this project is going.”

And for his part, board member R. William Robinson said, “The jury is still out.”


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