By Roger Butow
Logistical and economic feasibility matter. Creating a separate recycled water system for fire suppression in our canyons fails both metrics. More importantly, water quality regulatory compliance limits Laguna’s utility options.
These advocates ignore industry analytical maxims like risk-benefit and/or cost-benefit ratios. Contrary to their false, propagandistic narrative, elected officials and staff aren’t profiting by saying “no.” This is about public agency accountability and fiduciary responsibility, not political will.
Advocates won’t be the ones breaking the news to ratepayers of double-digit increases, not have to write IOU checks in the tens of millions of dollars range, or justify increasing debt service per customer. Nor will the advocates have to defend these increases when predictable Prop 218 legal challenges are filed.
Like Mickey Mouse (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) in Disney’s 1940 classic animation film FANTASIA, fantasy-driven advocates demand the waving of a magic wand: Water for fire suppression in our major canyons can be produced at the Coastal Treatment Plant (CTP) in Aliso Canyon, easily transported to a cluster of multi-million-gallon reservoirs on ridgelines, then distributed via gravity feed to the zones below.
These advocates conveniently leave out minor details like the enormous, related expenditures: planning and design, permitting processes, installations, infrastructural material, easements and encroachments, weather delays, contingency allowances, plus ongoing operation and maintenance costs.
I interviewed the CTP utility players: It would take about $10 million to fully convert the Coastal Treatment Plant in Aliso Canyon to a modern Advanced Waste Treatment System (tertiary) meeting Title 22 compliance standards. For details, see waterboards.ca.gov/laws_regulations.
Total wastewater flow to the CTP is about 3.3 million gallons per day (MGD), but SCWD already uses about 2.3 MGD of that for recycled during non-rainy and drought periods. Only one MGD is available for presently non-existent storage reservoirs, plus a transmission and distribution system.
You need about one pump station per 300 to 400 feet of elevation climb plus relay/slave stations, and they cost about $500,000 unit. So add another $5 million.
Advocates believe that at minimum three such hilltop reservoirs, storing approximately 10 MG total would suffice. One above Aliso, one at Top-Of-The-World, and one on the ridge above Emerald Bay. Reservoirs cost about $2.50/gallon of storage capacity, our running total is $35 million. That doesn’t include construction costs, complex water transport, etc.
The E-Bay ridge one would require ripping up PCH for about 5 miles, dislocating via lane closures, a disrupting traffic circulation nightmare. Planners estimate roughly a $400 to 500 per lineal foot operation. Then add significant patching and re-paving operations.
Conservatively add another $3+ million in today’s dollars, and as for commuters? Think about a fun redux of the Caltrans downtown project.
Another element being pushed is a satellite cistern system underneath Coast Highway intersections or adjacent streets. Fighting dense neighborhood fires with recycled water production, gravity doing the replenishing work from the reservoir supplies above. 30 sites with a 100,000-gallon capacity each have been proposed by said advocates.
Pre-fab cisterns would cost around $500,000 each, plus we’d need to excavate a hole the size of a school bus, taking up a minimum one lane plus the sidewalk to install new, separate fire hydrants at 30 intersections. So $1+ million per cistern, total holding capacity 3 MG. We’re now up to at least $70 million and climbing.
State regulations prohibit mixing Title 22 water with Title 17 (domestic) supplies and omitted by proponents is a simple fact: You can’t dump either to the municipal storm drain system that discharges into the Pacific Ocean. Recycled has a 7-10 day shelf life, and hence storage must re-sterilized in place or be used.
All of the system elements could be filled in about two weeks. What if we had no fires that year? Since you can’t discharge the water, can’t send it back to the plant, cleansing and distribution offline, now stranded assets, what then?
Updated, Direct Potable Reuse regulations by the State are expected in late 2023 or early 2024. Converting the CTP to DPR is projected at $25 million. Maybe two years of the usual bureaucratic wrangling later, and it’s a total no-brainer decision.
Within the same projected construction timeline as the fire suppression system advocates propose (five to seven years), using existing plumbing, no excavating, no vehicular distress, no need to repave, at 1/3 the cost of an unnecessary recycled system.