Making water

Marc B. Haefele is a commentator for KPCC and writes for Citybeat, Citywatch and Nomada magazine of Buenos Aires. Anna Sklar is a former NPR reporter and former public affairs director for the city Department of Public Works. She is the author of "Black Acres," a history of the city sewer system.

Los Angeles’ water supplies are getting lower. The once-desolate Owens River Valley burst into flower this year because the Department of Water and Power brought less water to the city. Other states are increasing the amount of water they are able to tap from the Colorado River, L.A.'s primary source of water. And this has been the city’s driest year on record. In response, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called for greater water conservation to help meet future needs.

Given this scary situation, the DWP earlier this month asked a handful of private contractors how to promote “recycled water planning” and, in the words of DWP representative Carol Tucker, “to explore all options with our stakeholders for recycling water.” Tucker insisted that turning sewage into tap water was not part of the plan, and other DWP officials have echoed her message.

But the water agency’s request for ideas about recycling was explicit. It spoke of “indirect potable reuse,” which means restocking groundwater with purified wastewater.

Sound vaguely familiar?

It should. Los Angeles has been there -- and then backed off. This time it should stay the course.

The new study might cost $1.5 million, but most of the needed equipment already exists. It’s called the East Valley Water Reclamation Project.


Built in the 1990s at a cost of $55 million, it was used for a few days then shut down seven years ago. As DWP engineer Bill Van Wagoner put it, “We spent slightly under $1 million per acre foot (of water produced) before we had to shut it off.” That comes down to about $2.75 a gallon -- as opposed to the fraction of a cent per gallon usually paid by DWP customers.

The problem? “Indirect potable reuse” got a bad new name: “toilet to tap.”

Public hearings on the reclamation project’s safety were held in 1995. The Los Angeles City Council then greenlighted it unanimously after the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state Department of Health Services and the state Environmental Protection Agency also approved the proposal.

It worked this way: Sewage was treated at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys and then pumped to spreading fields near Hansen Dam, where, over five years, it would filter through sandy soil and gravel into an underground reservoir.

But what should have been an engineering triumph soon became a PR disaster.

For five years after its approval, the reclamation project was largely forgotten. Then came the official DWP announcement of its completion in 2000, just before an open mayoral contest in 2001 that included Valley secession on the ballot. The water agency could not have chosen a more inopportune moment.

The new pipeline, providing enough treated water for 120,000 L.A. homes, was greeted by protest. State Sen. Richard Alarcon, who had approved it when he was a council member, now objected. He was swiftly joined by Gerald Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, credited with popularizing the “toilet to tap” tag. Opposition snowballed.

Mayoral candidate and Valley council member Joel Wachs, who also had approved the plan in 1995, cried foul in 2000: “Go tell somebody in North Hollywood that they have to drink toilet water but the mayor [Richard Riordan] won’t have to drink it in [his] Brentwood [home].”

Wachs was utterly wrong. East Valley groundwater, like all the city’s groundwater, is moved from Hollywood to downtown to Silver Lake and even to the Westside, “depending on supply, need and the way the system goes,” Tucker said.

At the time, the DWP insisted that the treated water from the Tillman plant was almost potable, and when it reached the water agency’s Valley wells, it would have a purity indistinguishable from unpolluted rainwater.

Few listened, however. City Atty. James K. Hahn, planning his own mayoral run, discretely ordered the recycling project shuttered for no other visible reason than the public protest. As mayor, he later reaffirmed his order, and the DWP promptly ran and hid from water recycling.

Back then and now, however, water treated at the city’s main Hyperion wastewater plant goes into other cities’ water supplies. It flows into aquifers supplying Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Torrance, courtesy of the West Basin Water Recycling Facility. The water supply of thousands of other Los Angeles County residents also includes highly treated wastewater.

This is because modern water-purification technology is considered totally reliable. It uses micro-filtration and reverse osmosis, which pumps water through permeable membranes, and ultraviolet light to remove all contaminants. The “yuck factor” is now completely imaginary.

Orange County just opened its own half-billion-dollar reclamation program -- almost four times the size of the East Valley project -- with minimal public opposition. The secret of this success? Transparency.

“We started telling people from the start that we’re purifying sewage water,” said Ron Wildermuth, district communications director, for the Orange County Water District.

The district also mounted a substantial public education campaign that should become a model for the DWP’s plan to relaunch its own ill-publicized recycling program. By November, Orange County’s water reclamation plant daily will supply up to 500,000 people with 70 million gallons of treated water.

Every day, the outflow of L.A.'s treated wastewater -- about 400 million-plus gallons -- amounts to the state’s fifth-largest river running into the Pacific Ocean.

In these dry times, it makes perfect sense to stop throwing it away.