As a hedge against water shortages and population growth, Orange County has begun operating the world's largest, most modern reclamation plant -- a facility that can turn 70 million gallons of treated sewage into drinking water every day.
The new purification system at the Orange County Water District headquarters in Fountain Valley cost about $490 million and comprises a labyrinth of pipes, filters, holding tanks and pumps across 20 acres.
Almost four years after construction began, the facility is now purifying effluent from a neighboring sewage treatment plant run by the Orange County Sanitation District, a partner in the venture.
The finished product will be injected into the county's vast groundwater basin to combat saltwater intrusion and supplement drinking water supplies for 2.3 million people in coastal, central and northern Orange County.
But before that can be done, state health officials must certify that the reclaimed water meets drinking water standards. Officials expect the approval to be granted before opening ceremonies Jan. 25.
"Our sources from the delta and the Colorado River are becoming unavailable," said Michael R. Markus, general manager of the water district. "This will help drought-proof the region and give us a locally controlled source of water."
Last month, for example, a federal judge in Fresno ordered a 30% reduction in fresh water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the tiny delta smelt, a threatened species. The region, which is facing myriad environmental problems, is the hub of California's water system.
If the reclamation plant's full potential is realized, officials say, up to 130 million gallons a day could be added to the county's fresh water supply, lessening the region's dependence on outside sources.
Basically, the facility takes treated sewage, which would have been discharged into the sea, and runs it through an advanced filtration system.
Officials say the final product is as clean as distilled water and so pure that lime has to be added to it to keep it from leaching minerals out of concrete pipes, thus weakening them.
The effluent is first pumped into the reclamation plant from the sanitation district's sewage treatment facility next door. The brackish water, which smells of deodorizer, flows into 26 holding basins equipped with 270 million micro-filters -- thin straws of porous material with holes no bigger than three-hundredths the thickness of a human hair.
From there, the water is forced under high pressure through a series of thin plastic membranes housed in rows of white cylinders. Next, it is dosed with hydrogen peroxide and bombarded with ultraviolet light to neutralize any remaining contaminants.
At this point, the water is free of bacteria, viruses, carcinogens, hormones, chemicals, toxic heavy metals, fertilizers, pesticides and dissolved pharmaceuticals.
Though it is good enough to drink, the scrubbing isn't finished. Once the state approves, up to 70 million gallons of treated water a day will be pumped into the county's giant underground aquifer. It will be cleansed further as it percolates through the earth to depths up to 1,000 feet.
"This is as advanced a reclamation system as you are going to get right now," said Krista Clark, director of regulatory affairs for the Assn. of California Water Agencies, a nonprofit organization that represents 450 government authorities. "It will keep Orange County's groundwater basin reliable and produce super-quality drinking water in the future."
At $550 per acre-foot, the recycled water is slightly more expensive than supplies brought in from Northern California. But water district officials predict that the cost of the treated water will become more competitive as the price of imported water rises.
Officials say the reclamation process uses less electricity than moving the same amount of water to Orange County through the state's system of aqueducts. The California State Water Project consumes about a fifth of the energy used in the state.
The reclamation plant also will dramatically reduce the volume of treated sewage discharged daily off the Orange County coast. The sanitation district now releases about 240 million gallons a day through its ocean outfall -- an amount that could be cut by more than half given the potential of water recycling.
If so, the county might not have to build a new $300-million ocean outfall, said James M. Ferryman, chairman of the sanitation district board of directors.
Sanitation and water district officials hope the new plant will become a model for governments trying to cope with water shortages, drought and the increasing demands of growing populations.
Projects similar to Orange County's are under study in San Diego, San Jose, Texas, Florida, Australia and Singapore. Recently, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began reconsidering plans to recycle waste water.
More than a decade ago, Los Angeles built a small reclamation system in the eastern San Fernando Valley. The $55-million plant was closed in 2000 because of the public's distaste over the so-called toilet-to-tap process.
"Cheap political shots have closed some of these efforts," said Connor Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, an environmental group based in Santa Monica. "All of Southern California should be doing these projects. They represent an efficient use of local resources. They are cost-effective and one of the most environmentally friendly things you can do."
In Orange County, water reclamation has not faced much opposition thanks to public awareness and the water district's extensive marketing campaign: plant tours, neighborhood pizza parties and hundreds of public meetings to explain the process.
The outreach effort has resulted in endorsements from scores of elected officials as well as civic, community and environmental organizations.
Public acceptance was also helped by the fact that since 1976 the county has been pumping about 15 million gallons of reclaimed sewer water a day into the groundwater basin to protect it from saltwater intrusion.
For decades, the aquifer has been plagued by saltwater that flows in as fresh water is pumped out of underground reservoirs along the coast. The condition can be checked and reduced by injecting treated water back into the ground to act as a shield.
District officials estimate that 90% of the treated water from the district's old reclamation plant -- Water Factory 21 -- has made it into the county's drinking water supply without a risk to public health.
"We are really just helping ourselves," Ferryman said. "Communities are waking up, especially those in semiarid regions. They are beginning to realize that you need reliability in your water supplies."