Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy
Even as Laguna Beach County Water District prepares to raise rates over the next five years to pay for the escalating cost of supplying local customers with 1.5 billion gallons of imported water annually, local resident Michael Beanan sees a solution in what he describes as a “goldmine”: 4 billion gallons of treated sewage that spews into the Pacific Ocean from an outfall pipe off Laguna’s coast each year.
Unlike the alchemists who never succeeded in turning base metals into gold, modern scientists have transformed wastewater into drinking water, which might as well be liquid gold given its increasing scarcity in drought-stricken California.
But that transformation is extremely costly and so far seems to be an undertaking of only huge water districts.
Currently seven projects in the state are permitted to perform this modern-day miracle of expanding groundwater supplies with water purified by state-of-the art treatment plants, including Orange County Water District, which supplies water to 20 northern and central Orange County cities and water agencies. The city of San Diego has also recently completed a demonstration water purification project that, if eventually approved full-scale, would be the first in the state permitted to supplement a surface water supply, the San Vincente Reservoir, with treated water.
San Diego supplies 1.3 million customers with water and Orange County Water District fulfills more than half the water demand of 2.4 million people. Laguna Beach County Water District serves just 24,000 residents.
This helps explain why, after a year of studying options, the recommendations of the city’s Wastewater Advisory Task Force largely focused on collaborations with other agencies and participation in regional efforts rather than undertaking solo initiatives.
The task force met with experts to assess technologies for wastewater recycling and lessening the environmental impact of South Orange County Wastewater Authority’s sewage treatment facility in Aliso Canyon, as well as to explore alternative water sources.
Their conclusion “is that we as a community need to redouble our efforts and figure out a way to reuse and recycle our water,” task force member and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said, presenting the recommendations at a recent City Council meeting. “It is not responsible to be using 100 percent imported water,” he said, referring to the local district’s reliance on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which draws its water from the shrinking supplies of northern California’s San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River.
“Millions of gallons a day shoot out into the sewer outfall at the end of Aliso Creek,” said Whalen. In terms of a long-range solution, “we’re going to have to reuse that water again,” he said.
Council member Steve Dicterow joined Whalen on the task force, along with David Shissler, the city’s director of water quality, Tracy Ingebrigtsen, senior water quality analyst and interested residents Michael Beanan, Mark Christy, Jane Egly, Cathleen Greiner and Derek Plaza.
“Necessity will drive innovation, and we must do our part in encouraging direct potable reuse, desalination, and perhaps storm water collection and reuse,” said Shissler. Currently, though, “most of these technologies fall short of being economically viable,” he said.
Indeed. San Diego spent $11.8 million, funded through grants and a temporary rate increase, on their demonstration project alone. The next step is to obtain permission from regulators to supplement the surface water in the San Vincente Reservoir with purified water.
The cost of constructing a full-scale project would run about $370 million, with $16 million a year in operating costs that could add $6.87 to the average monthly residential water bill. Some costs would be offset by savings in avoided wastewater costs.
For their part, the Orange County Water District is increasing their capacity to purify wastewater into water that meets or exceeds drinking water standards. Expected to be completed early next year, the expansion will bring total production to 100 million gallons a day, which is enough water to meet the demands of Anaheim and Huntington Beach, combined, according to their website. The cost is $142 million.
While the City Council adopted all of the task force recommendations to participate in and promote water recycling initiatives, no clear leader with the clout to push a regional solution has come forward.
WateReuse California, for example, partnered with WateReuse Research Foundation, of Alexandria, Va., in 2012 to advance water purification options statewide, but has only raised $5.4 million.
SOCWA, which manages wastewater for 500,000 south-county customers and several water districts, already produces nearly 6 billion gallons of recycled water, mostly for landscape use, that isn’t purified to drinking water standards.
And for an agency to distribute that water to its customers, requires infrastructure. While the South Coast Water District sells recycled water, Laguna Beach County Water District lacks the infrastructure to provide it.
“It’s very complicated trying to figure out who is responsible for the different aspects of the water we drink, wastewater, and recycled water,” said Shissler. “The problem is that it’s complicated for the experts as well. The issue of water rights, water storage, and water as a commodity has been forever contentious.”
In the meantime, Laguna Beach County Water District’s Oct. 28 hearing over rate increases may instigate a backlash.
“Until the LBCWD demonstrates diligence in planning and developing water resource and reserves including conservation programs that locate and reuse water, reward those who demonstrate water wise methods and decreased use, the rate increase is deemed objectionable and protested,” resident Leah Vasquez wrote in letter of protest last week.