Waste Waterworld

Will poop-to-tap plan raise a stink?

Photo by Keith MayFor those of you who did not see the $200 million flop Waterworld—which would be all of you—there's a scene near the beginning in which Kevin Costner's longhaired character, marooned on a raft because the entire Earth is covered in water, pees in a bottle. He then pours his urine into a mini-filtration device to produce clear water, which he promptly chugs. If anyone had been in the audience to witness this scene when it was originally shown in theaters, the sight would have produced a loud, collective "Ewww!"

On Nov. 16, the Orange County Water District and the Orange County Sanitation District held the first of four traveling community forums in Anaheim; the forums are aimed at removing the "Ewww!" factor from the Groundwater Replenishment System, the $600 million project to turn human sewage into crystal-clear drinking water.

The presentation included slick laptop-to-big-screen graphics, raves about the project ("visionary," "grand in scale") and claimes this is the lowest-cost solution to a looming water crisis in Orange County caused by a dwindling supply.

It also included skepticism from at least two of the 25 people huddled in an Anaheim Community Center conference room.

But it seemed as if more than half of the crowd works for the districts as employees or private consultants on the project. And they were ready for all comers. Indeed, water-district sanitation expert Thomas M. Dawes began by telling the audience that questioning the project is good. He advised audience members to grill staff about the water's safety and costs. He seemed confident that once people fully understand the poop-to-tap plan, they'll see it's the best alternative out there.

Anything that would involve tapping into a new, local, drought-proof source of water has a lot going for it. The future availability of water imported from northern California and the Colorado River—which makes up 25 percent of what's consumed in North County and 100 percent of South County's water—is uncertain. Meanwhile, the groundwater supply must be replenished, or we'll have to import even more, which will get costlier as outside sources continue to dwindle.

Because of the growth in North County, more water will be needed "even if we conserve," according to project manager Debra L. Burris. She said it's a waste that most sewage water that is piped to treatment plants is later discharged up to five miles out into the ocean. Because her project would help reduce the amount of sewage sent to sea, it would stave off the need to build another $170 million outfall pipe—the cost of which would have to be reflected in higher water bills. In all, officials estimate the groundwater system will save its ratepayers $13 million annually.

Another added benefit is that the treated sewage water will be much lower in minerals than existing water, said Burris. Excessive minerals corrode plumbing fixtures and water heaters and cause residential users to lay out cash for water-softening equipment.

They made it all sound like a slam-dunk, as if the county water and sanitation boards would be nuts not to green-light the Groundwater Replenishment System when directors vote on Jan. 24. And they made the public sound foolish if they did not support yes votes from directors, whose approval would guarantee the system will be online in 2005.

But those directors are sensitive to public reaction, Dawes confessed, and he vowed that what comes out of these community forums will sway their votes.

"What's different about this project is we made a conscious decision to produce near-distilled-quality water because we understood the concern with the source," said Ron Wildermuth, county water's public-information officer.

Dawes defended the project because the sewer water would not go straight from the treatment plant to household taps. Instead, it would go through a treatment process that includes microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet "disinfection." That water would then be discharged into the groundwater basin, where it would stay for a year before being drawn up—another process that involves filtration and chlorine disinfection. The water pumped out of wells would have to meet government clean-water standards before anyone could drink it. Burris and other officials assured the audience the water would exceed those standards. One wag estimated the water will be 99.9 percent pure.

That was not enough to satisfy Anaheim resident Jim Anderson, who worried that human viruses might survive the treatment process, breed in the groundwater, and spark a massive health disaster in Orange County.

Since officials mentioned they've been working on the project for a few years, Anderson wanted to know how much time, energy and dollars have gone toward health vs. engineering. Dawes estimated 75 percent has gone toward health, and Burris said, "We haven't really designed it yet."

For a project that has not yet been designed, the officials sure seemed to know a lot about the cost, engineering and water purity in the proposed system.

"We know this project is safe; we absolutely know it," Dawes said. "And we appreciate you're concerned about it."

But another man in the audience chimed in, "We're lab rats for a system you're developing and trying to shove down our throats."

Indeed, to illustrate how well-orchestrated the event was, consider the final slide on the screen, which stated, "Thanks for taking the time to attend," followed by a line that read, "Questions."

It was too much for Anderson, who rose from his seat about three-quarters of the way into the presentation. He'd had enough. Looking too dapper for the room in his suit, Anderson recalled being told 37 years ago that Agent Orange would not harm people, that it was only bad for plants, and that he could drink it.

"Can you tell me with no uncertainty that you can prevent human-feces viruses from getting into our drinking water?" he asked as officials sat silently. "Do you know the source of deadly viruses is human feces? And we have all these people immigrating here to Orange County from all over the world. Who knows what viruses they are bringing with them?"

Then he said, "I gotta go" and split. Jim Anderson had left the building. Well, not quite. Caught in the lobby, the former member of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps was still shaking his head in disbelief over the groundwater proposal.

"It's just contrary to common sense," he said. "You see the research they've done today. It's like first grade. They are talking about taking human feces and mixing it with our drinking water. Viruses cannot be totally filtered out with reverse osmosis. Microorganisms are very small. For oxidation and bleach to work, it will take a huge amount. It's very unlikely they will have the amount of oxidation to do it."

After the roadshow, as people mingling in the back of the room munched on chocolate-chip cookies and gawked at water-filtration models, Dawes and Wildermuth were asked if they expect more tough questions when the forums move to other towns.

"People should ask questions," Dawes said. "Any time you tell people we're going to take human sewage and turn it into drinking water, they look at you and say, 'You're nuts.'"

He paused a beat, looked at Wildermuth, and then added, "We aren't, are we?"

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