Purified wastewater triggers release of arsenic within aquifer, study finds

The Orange County Water District has operated a potable reuse and groundwater replenishment system since 2008. Treated wastewater is purified using a mix of microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide. It is then added to a vast underground aquifer.

The Orange County Water District has operated a potable reuse and groundwater replenishment system since 2008. Treated wastewater is purified using a mix of microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide. It is then added to a vast underground aquifer.

(Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to the science of transforming sewage into tap water - or potable reuse - engineers say there’s no question the product is clean enough to drink.

The trouble is, researchers are now learning that this drinking water may be too clean to store underground without special treatment.

A study published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that when highly purified wastewater was stored in an Orange County aquifer, the water caused arsenic to escape from clay sediments in a way that naturally infiltrating water did not.

In some instances, researchers said that arsenic concentrations exceeded the drinking water limit of 10 micrograms per liter, although the increases were only temporary and levels eventually returned to normal. None of the affected water entered the public tap system, officials said.


The root of the problem, according to researchers at Stanford University and the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System, was that the purified, recycled water lacked the minerals that native water acquires as it soaks into the earth or flows along rivers.

“Basically the water was too pure,” said senior author Scott Fendorf, a Stanford geochemist. “It was devoid of everything other than water molecules.”

The solution, according to the researchers, was to add quicklime or another calcium-rich substance to the purified water before adding it to the aquifer – essentially dirtying it up a bit.

Jason Dadakis, the OCWD’s director of health and regulatory affairs and a study co-author, said the added calcium appears to be working.

“The initial results look positive,” Dadakis said. “We still have more long-term monitoring we want to do.”

Although scientists have identified several other methods by which arsenic can contaminate groundwater – lack of oxygen can be one of them – Fendorf said this may be the first time highly purified water was identified as a trigger.

The finding may prove to be a significant factor in future efforts to recycle and store wastewater.

As severe drought continues to strain water resources throughout California and the West, planners and officials are increasingly considering potable reuse facilities and aquifer recharge systems as an answer to the crisis.


At the same time, however, researchers are becoming increasingly aware of problems that arise when waters of varying chemistries are pumped or filtered underground. Mismatched waters can trigger the release of small solid contaminants that may lead to widespread contamination of an aquifer, they say.

“What you’re seeing in Orange County is something we have to be very careful of across the globe,” Fendorf said.

Arsenic is a natural and ubiquitous component of the Earth’s crust, according to the World Health Organization, and prolonged exposure can cause skin cancer and other serious health problems.

While arsenic has contaminated drinking water everywhere from the United States to East Asia, it wasn’t entirely clear why levels were rising and falling in Orange County’s recharge system.


To find the answer, Fendorf and his colleagues took columns of sediment from beneath the Miraloma Basin, a surface recharge basin in Anaheim, and exposed them to a variety of different water samples: purified recycled water, water that was saturated with minerals or salts, and waters with different pH values.

What they discovered was that a layer of clay beneath the basin contained naturally occurring arsenic. However, this arsenic was usually held in place by a coating of positively charged calcium and magnesium particles. When natural, mineral-rich water percolated through this clay sediment, the calcium, magnesium and arsenic usually stayed put.

Yet when the purified H2O soaked through, calcium and magnesium were more likely to leave the clay and hitch a ride with the water, because the water wasn’t already crowded with other minerals. When this happened, the arsenic was set free and essentially “piggybacked” its way into the water, Fendorf said.

As the purified water flowed deeper and deeper into the aquifer, it acquired more and more minerals from other sediments. At the same time, its arsenic level declined, Fendorf said.


The researchers note that this phenomenon may also play a role in future efforts to establish so-called direct potable reuse facilities. Unlike Orange County’s indirect potable reuse facility, which mixes purified recycled water with water from other sources and stores it in an aquifer before using it as drinking water, direct potable reuse systems pump purified recycled water directly in the public water system.

Historically, the public has been less open to direct potable reuse projects, which are often called “toilet to tap.” Although advocates insist direct potable reuse is safe and efficient, the public has been more accepting of potable reuse if it involves aquifer storage.

“This is the benefit of direct potable reuse,” Dadakis said. “You eliminate the potential of environmental degradation. You don’t compromise the quality of the water you’ve worked so hard to put together.”

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