Is Recycled Water a Pipe Dream?


No project to pipe recycled water to irrigate city landscapes has yet penciled out, Laguna Beach County Water District officials reported to the City Council last week.

Refuting accusations that the district is making no effort to provide recycled water to its customers north of Nyes Place, the general manager insisted district staff has explored various options and is contracting a firm to study all possible solutions.

But as district staff proceeded to float the various options currently on the table, they poked holes in each one, effectively sinking them, mostly due to cost. As the discussion devolved, ultimately proposals from the public offered the most potential for buoyancy.

Laying pipes connecting the water district to a treatment plant where wastewater is recovered costs $1 million a mile, said Renae Hinchey, LBCWD’s general manager.

The South Coast Water District, which serves South Laguna and neighboring towns, supplies the irrigation needs of 175 area customers recycled urban runoff from Aliso Creek, transported through 15 miles of purple pipes. By contrast, Laguna Beach County Water District would need to lay secondary pipes to tap sources from neighboring districts in order to distribute recycled water

The closest source for recycled water is the Moulton Niguel Water District, which could potentially serve LBCWD’s customers in three neighborhoods off El Toro Road.

Moulton Niguel wants to charge Laguna the same rate as other customers and the district has yet to negotiate a compromise on cost, Hinchey said.

Moulton Niguel currently posts rates of between $1.17 and $8.21 per 748 gallons of recycled water, depending on the tier. This translates to between $815 and $3,578 per acre-foot, depending on the customer’s water use efficiency.

Meanwhile, LBCWD pays the Metropolitan Water District about $1,000 per acre-foot of potable imported water, according to Dave Youngblood, LBCWD’s manager of engineering and operations. They charge customers who stay within their water budget $1,852 per acre-foot of potable water, or $4.25 for every 748 gallons.

Tapping into El Toro Water District’s expanding recycled water system offers another option. The Laguna district is pursuing a county grant to fund the project, Hinchey said.

Even as Hinchey and Youngblood outlined the economic infeasibility of and other roadblocks posed by various options, members of the public saw untapped opportunities.

Mike Beanan, of the South Laguna Civic Association, has long called for a water distribution system to carry reclaimed water from Aliso Creek to irrigate public spaces north of Nyes Place.

Youngblood claimed that such a project would require putting in 42,000 feet of pipe and cost $30 million. Given the 10 percent demand for irrigation water in the public parks and landscaping areas that the pipes would service, the project didn’t pencil out economically he said. The city would basically be the only customer, and their business was not enough to offset the $20,000 per acre-foot it would cost to build the system.

Beanan disagreed, contending that beyond city parks, there are 1,400 homes along the Laguna Greenbelt that could use that water to irrigate for fire protection. “That water could be metered monthly and provide a revenue stream,” he said. What’s more, beyond watering parklands, the toilets at the art festival grounds and downtown should all be using recycled water according to state laws, he said. “It’s embarrassing that we flush toilets with drinking water from the Colorado River.”

He was also undaunted by the $1 million per mile cost of laying pipes. Between them, Laguna Niguel and Dana Point installed 10 miles of pipes using Orange County Transportation Authority grants, he said. “We need to step up.”

Capistrano Beach resident Richard Gardner, former director of both the Capistrano Beach Water District and the South Coast Water District, agreed that the water district should stop considering the city as the only possible customer for recycled water. “You don’t have a single property in your entire city that uses recycled water for irrigation outside for private residential use,” he said, even though the state allows it. “There’s no reason why you can’t step up just because you haven’t got a system yet,” he said.

Gardner also suggested that merging Laguna Beach County Water District with South Coast Water District would create efficiencies and make them more competitive. “You’ll be the same size as Moulton Niguel,” he said.

Even if the district had the infrastructure, the supply of wastewater to recycle is shrinking due to conservation, Youngblood said. “We’re in a different world now,” he said. El Toro is already concerned about getting enough wastewater to meet the demands of their current expansion, he said.

Beanan saw it differently. “I think we’re always going to have wastewater as long as we take showers and use the toilets and as long as we have 6 million visitors a year using our wastewater facilities,” he said.

Mayor Bob Whalen asked about recent claims that “several million gallons of wastewater a day” issue from the Aliso outfall, “which would seem to be a source of supply,” he said.

That figure is closer to about 3 million gallons, said Youngblood. And South Coast Water District has plans to eventually use that in their recycling, he said.

He did not offer much hope on capturing storm water runoff as a supply source either, calling it “extremely challenging.” To capture enough water to make a meaningful supply, would require a very big reservoir, “which is very expensive, and building a dam in California is close to impossible, but it can be done,” he said.

Resident Tom Halliday brought up the only option that held water for the officials, asking about homeowners using their own gray water, such as from sinks and laundry, to irrigate their yards.

The cheapest supply of water is actually conservation, and recycling water close to the source, “makes perfect sense,” Youngblood said, since there is no citywide recycling.


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