FOUNTAIN VALLEY — As part of an ambitious effort to recycle water in Orange County, a new $33-million reclamation plant has begun sending its first gushes to Mile Square Park.
Conceived more than a decade ago by the Orange County Water District, the long-awaited Green Acres Project converts waste water into irrigation water for parks, golf courses, greenbelts and school grounds.
The thirsty turf of Mile Square Park is the only recipient so far. But within a year, the recycling plant will provide 7.5 million gallons of reclaimed water a day to areas of Fountain Valley, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. Included are South Coast Plaza, Santa Ana Country Club and Centennial Park.
Within five years, an expansion estimated to cost $35 million is expected to double the flow and add pipelines to serve parts of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
Ultimately, OCWD's goal is to build enough recycling plants to provide one-fifth of the water used by the 2 million residents of North and central County. The water can be used only for irrigation, because it does not meet state standards for drinking water.
County officials said the plant's start-up could not come at a better time. Five years of drought have drastically reduced water supplies and proven the need to find new sources.
"About 260 million gallons of waste water a day (in Orange County) is flowing into the ocean, and we look upon it as a resource we need to tap into," said William Mills, OCWD's general manager. "It's this region's single most dependable source of water."
The plant, one of the largest in California, helps put the county far ahead of other California counties and municipalities in recycling treated sewage. The Irvine Ranch Water District, one of the county's largest water suppliers, already is a national leader in recycling water.
Many cities have recycling plants smaller than OCWD's, while others, including Los Angeles, have just mounted large projects that are several years from completion.
Reclaimed water does not come cheap because of the miles of pipeline required, so the OCWD expects to lose money on the venture for five years. Because of subsidies, water bills for the plant's customers will remain the same on average, although some will save up to 20%, depending on their current rate structure.
Water reclamation plants guarantee adequate water supplies even in times of statewide shortages or drought, Mills said. That can be reassuring for businesses and for operations that rely on large quantities of water, such as golf courses and parks.
Also, because the price of imported water is expected to double in years to come, customers could see major savings in the future, Mills said.
At full capacity, 60% of the project's water will go to golf courses. Other customers will include Orange Coast College, the Orange County Fairgrounds, Los Amigos High School in Fountain Valley, Sakioka Farm and McDonnell Douglas.
David Zahrte, golf course superintendent at the Santa Ana Country Club, said the club expects to receive Green Acres water by the end of this year, which will allow it to stop pumping fresh ground water for irrigation. The 105-acre course uses up to 100 million gallons per year, enough to serve perhaps 300 large families.
Steve Goya, a district supervisor for county parks, said the county is saving 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day by using recycled water at Mile Square Park.
In all, the Green Acres Project will save enough drinkable water to supply 45,000 people a year.
Treated sewage that would normally be pumped into the ocean is delivered to the Green Acres plant, which is at OCWD headquarters in Fountain Valley, via a pipeline from the county's sanitation plant a block away.
Then it undergoes more cleansing--including disinfection and filtering to remove bacteria--before being piped to customers through 25 miles of underground pipelines in Fountain Valley, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa.
Bilingual signs have been posted at Mile Square Park warning the public not to drink it. The park's drinking water comes from a separate system. Irrigation will take place at night to avoid public contact.
When debated by the district's board of directors about a decade ago, the project was considered risky and costly because California's water supplies were abundant and cheap.
But OCWD officials foresaw future shortages. Since then, the state's population growth, the record-breaking drought and environmental laws that protect waterways have combined to make that prediction come true.
"It's been a long time in coming, but we think it's the right kind of water resources project to do today and in the future," Mills said. "It's the first of many of these projects to come."