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EARTHWATCH : Water Re-Source : Taken from storm drains and sewage treatment plants, it can be used safely for agriculture and landscaping.

March 14, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During the recent but all too brief rainstorm, my kids and I were driving to school when they said: "That water's all going down the drain. Why can't we save it and use it during the drought?"

I kind of thought we were already doing that sort of thing hereabouts. I checked. And it turns out we are. It's called water reclamation. That's fancy talk for taking water from the storm drains and water that's been cleaned at our sewage treatment plants and, instead of dumping it into the Pacific Ocean, piping it back into the county for landscaping and agricultural use.

Before you begin to say, "Icky . . . I don't like the idea," let me say that it's increasingly the water source of choice for golf courses, memorial parks (like Forest Lawn in Glendale) and, as of last week, the greenery in Universal City (the real stuff, not the props).

In Ventura County, this water reclamation business is very much a business, with four facilities being planned and folks already arguing over who's to get most of the water and at what price.

The reason the city of Ventura has been recycling water for such purposes over the years and Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Moorpark are moving in this direction is, of course, economic. When water was plentiful, it was cheap. The drought's made it expensive. Desalinated water, for instance, is almost 10 times as expensive as regular Metropolitan Water District stuff. Reclaimed water, on the other hand, can be produced at a level of quality safe for agriculture or landscaping for 10 cents per 100 gallons. (MWD is 7 cents.) Piping reclaimed water back to where it can be used is an expense, of course. More on that later.

As I've mentioned before in this column, half of the water in urban areas is used outdoors. Actually, water planners in built-up areas find that we can satisfy 60% of our needs with reclaimed water. That means if our freshwater supplies remain low, recycling can be our ticket to maintaining our lifestyle.

"It's a resource we haven't tapped," said Bob Quinn, new county water resources director. "Water runs downhill. We're already producing water at our treatment plants safer than some of the stuff in the wells around the county." He wants to see this resource "piped back up along the freeway."

One of his bosses, County Supervisor John K. Flynn, who is also co-chairman of a state water task force, said: "Every glass of water should be used two or three times."

That's happening with less than 1% of the water used in the urbanized parts of our county. But plans are afoot to push the figure to 10%. this work will cost tens of millions. This usage can be brought on-line soon and without having to compete for sources of water.

One factor pushing us, is seawater intrusion. The county is unique in having large water-well fields and agricultural activity near the Pacific. Pumping and drought have lowered the water table, and saltwater has intruded beneath 22 square miles around Oxnard. Reclaimed water will be used so the wells underneath can recharge and fend off the intruding seawater. Orange County has been doing this for a decade, so we know it works.

By now, it has been widely reported that the water shortage is here to stay. We will never be able to return to our wasteful ways. The water supply is so overtaxed by growth and waste that we have to get into recycling. Rain is not the answer--conservation is.

Next month, consumers can read a publication that is, in effect, the official blessing on putting dishwater on the roses without running it through the drain. The state has no official role in approving this, but its recommendations will be available through county health officials who do. This is a way for all of us to become resourceful at home and get some firsthand experience of the coming era of reclamation.

* FYI

For a copy of the forthcoming state publication "A Homeowner's Guide to Safe Use of Gray Water During a Drought" to be published by the state Department of Health Services, call the county Department of Health or the local Agricultural Extension office. For immediate questions about drought problems, call the State Drought Hot Line at (916) 323-0689.

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