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Thirstier O.C. May Dig Deep for Water

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It looks like iced tea and smells like rotten eggs.

But the billions of gallons of brownish water locked deep beneath Orange County’s northwest coastline represents a vast untapped resource that could add appreciably to the county’s water supplies and relieve pressure on increasingly overtaxed clear-water wells.

The Orange County Water District and several other local agencies are weighing plans to begin pumping the colored water, running it through an elaborate treatment process to improve its appearance and smell, and eventually shipping it to a tap near you.

The water gets its rusty color from the residue of redwood trees that dotted the county’s coastline thousands of years ago. Experts insist that it is perfectly safe to drink and is actually “softer” than the clear water coming from shallower wells because it has filtered down from the surface for a longer period of time.

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“Of course, people don’t like to see color in their water; they like to make their own iced tea,” admitted William Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District. “But it can be treated to break down the molecules [causing the discoloration] and become the same as clear water.”

It remains to be seen how the public will react to the idea, though water districts drawing on supplies of colored water elsewhere report little resistance from customers.

A greater potential problem is the costly purification process, which brings the price of treating 1,000 gallons to about 60 cents, which is significantly more expensive than ordinary well water treatment, but only a third as expensive as importing water.

Despite the certainty of higher treatment costs and the uncertainty of its reception by customers, Mills and other officials see colored water as an inevitable solution to a vexing problem: declining water levels in coastal wells during the hot-weather months, and the attendant risk of seawater invading and spoiling the water tables that provide much of the county’s potable supply.

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Water levels in many Orange County wells have sunk from their normal winter depth of 20 feet below sea level to 100 feet during periods of heavy demand in the summer, when the price of imported water is most expensive.

Without new sources of ground water, officials said, the situation will only grow worse with time.

“Colored water opens up a new pipeline for us,” said Diana Leach, assistant general manager of the Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa, which is conducting a pilot program with the brown liquid.

“It’s very high-quality water,” she said. “If we can do something about the color and the odor, we can use it.”

The brown water reserves are concentrated along the northwest Orange County coast roughly from Newport Beach to Seal Beach, and are found 400 to 1,400 feet below sea level--far beneath the clear-water aquifers currently being tapped.

The Mesa Consolidated Water District got into the processing of colored water more than a decade ago, when workers drilling for clear water hit a table of colored water instead.

The agency now operates a facility that pumps the brown water up and into a modest treatment facility off Fairview Road that uses ozone to remove the color and smell. Once this pilot program has run its course, officials will study the results and decide whether to build a full-scale treatment plant capable of supplying up to 20% of the district’s total output.

Leach said the water is drinkable in its raw form, but that the treatment process makes it aesthetically more appealing to customers.

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“Our customers would complain if we didn’t treat it,” she said. “It’s unpleasant to see color and smell [an odor] in the water you drink.”

At a Orange County Water District board meeting last week, the board members were served glasses of chilled, untreated colored water. The chilling process all but eliminates the odor, and officials give the drink high marks.

“It had a little bit of a metallic taste, but it was very good,” said Wes Bannister, president of the Orange County Water District. “It actually tasted better that some of the tap water I’ve had.”

Board member Irv Pickler agreed. “The color scared me a little bit. At first, I thought it was champagne,” he said. “But it actually tasted like regular water, and I’m still alive today.”

The precise color and odor of the water varies based on location. A well in Huntington Beach produces with a very light brownish orange color, while a well in Fountain Valley yields a much darker variety that resembles strong iced tea or iced coffee.

The water district is still studying various treatment methods, which range from the ozone process used in Costa Mesa to a massive chemical coagulation system used in Long Beach. Some processes require huge--and prohibitively expensive--plants, while others can only treat certain types of colored water.

Mills and others envision building one or more regional treatment facilities that could serve numerous wells along the coast.

Some local water agencies might balk at the increased costs of processing the colored water. So the water district might consider subsidizing the efforts.

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“Most agencies don’t like to spend more money than they have to,” Mills said. “There may be ways to provide financial incentives that would encourage them to [bear] the additional expense.”

Longtime residents may remember that slightly colored tap water was fairly common in some parts of Orange County through the 1960s.

When the Mesa Consolidated Water District held community meetings on its colored water program, some residents gave officials a little history lesson. “They said the water had color in the past,” Leach said. “Because of that, restaurants served water in dark glasses.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Level Question

A huge water source lies beneath Orange County’s surface in coastal aquifers. The problem: The water is approximately the color of iced tea and it stinks. Pumping, treating and selling this water would ease pressure on clear water coastal wells that get tapped more heavily during dry summer months and would lessen chances of seawater invading the clear water aquifers.

Tapping the aquifers would help prevent seawater from leaking into coastal wells. The water level in these wells, already quite low, will be drawn down even farther during the summer. How the problem develops:

1. Underground water migrates toward the ocean and is trapped in wells

2. During summer, more demand and pumping lowers water level

3. Lower water level increases chance seawater will flow into wells

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The Source

Billions of gallons of water are present beneath a large swath of Orange County:

Legend: Area underlain by colored water

Source: Orange County Water District

Researched by SHELBY GRAD / Los Angeles Times


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