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Thrice-Cleansed : Special east county sites for the storage of reclaimed water in times of plenty for use in times of shortage are under study.

February 13, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the southeast valley area of Ventura County, they're looking for a place to stash treasure, treasure as precious as life itself. I'm talking about water. But this involves special water and special valleys.

I'm talking about treated sewage water and some geologically unique underground storage sites. Russell Valley in our county and Las Virgenes Valley nearby in Los Angeles County are being studied for a "reclaimed water seasonal storage" project. The idea is as old as the Bible. Store up supplies in time of plenty and even in time of flood and use them in times of shortage. Even this week's rains won't solve the California drought problem. The snowpack is still under 50% of what we need.

I'm not talking about the kind of just barely treated sewage that's messing up the beaches in San Diego these days. Since the mid-1960s, the east county-- Westlake and Thousand Oaks--has been hooked up to the Tapia water reclamation plant just over the border in L. A. County. And water customers with green space under professional maintenance--such as golf courses, schools and greenbelts--have been piping in that reclaimed water for irrigation.

We're talking about storage of sewer water that has been subjected to "tertiary treatment," which, I learned, doesn't mean that it's third-rate. Rather, it means something like thrice-cleansed. Sanitation professionals use the term polished . Anyway, it means that it's cleared by the county health department for "body contact"--which means swimming, sprinkling, washing. Everything but drinking.

In a column last year, I reported that 60% of the water use in the county is for outdoor purposes. Dave Burckart, manager of the Triunfo Sanitation District, which serves the southeast county, and his counterparts in L. A. think that figure is low.

More like three-quarters of the water we use outside the house--not for cooking or drinking. Big water users know this.

"We get calls all the time," Burckart said. "They want to hook up to the new pipes we're laying for delivery of reclaimed water. The demand exceeds supply in the summer."

Our water districts have to import expensive potable water from the giant Metropolitan Water District during the summer when demand is high. Triunfo wants to find some sites in its service area and nearby to store water from the Tapia plant--underground or in a small reservoir.

The geology of the area is suitable for this. Even unique. Normally in Southern California, any water that hits the ground runs out to sea. In the southeast county, it collects in underground aquifers so that in the wet winter months, the water table rises in developed areas and, on occasion, such as this week, can even cause flooding.

Burckart's team is prospecting-- just like the Westerners of yore-- for places to stash their supplies for use when needed. But don't worry that some county drilling rig is going to appear in your neighborhood unannounced to drill a test hole to see if you have any storage space in the aquifer under your street. There's a citizens watch under way that allows you to protest in time to respond.

Anyway, Ventura is not Orlando; we don't have any sinkholes gobbling up houses here.

Public workshops and citizen groups have been going over every aspect of this plan for almost a year.

"It's amazingly open," says Jim Colbaugh, Burckart's counterpart from the L. A. side of the county line. "We won't decide anything that hasn't been put through the public process. We're even mailing reports to every water subscriber--right with the bill."

I myself never read this stuff, so I suspect that this water storage project hasn't become the topic of general debate. There's the potential for that, though.

So I talked to Elaine Freeman, a member of the Community Advisory Committee--appointees of the water district chosen from among homeowner activists in the southeast county.

Freeman, who works near Lake Sherwood, told me that dissent has not surfaced in any of the meetings she's attended. Her own view is that "since we're not manufacturing any more water . . . I mean there's only so much on Earth . . . we have to recycle it to maintain our lifestyle."

She also noted that if we don't reuse more of the water we're importing from the MWD, we'll be vulnerable to price rises and shortages.

In this connection, Burckart said recycled water is cheaper than potable water to the consumer. But don't kid yourself; this kind of water independence costs money. When you spread out the capital expense of the parallel piping and storage facilities over time, it means that our water bills go up. But if we went to desalinate like Santa Barbara or Catalina, we would be paying 10 times as much.

In checking out the consumer angle--potential consumer resistance, that is, to use of recycled sewage--I got an earful from an 80-year-old Lake Sherwood homeowner. Since he moved there in 1943, Jack Speirs has been thinking about things like water. I expected him to be very sensitive about it.

Here's what he said: "It's finite. Ice, snow, rain . . . circulating down into the Earth and up again. It's all recycled dinosaur urine already."

The wisdom of the ages.

* FYI

Ventura County residents who live in the service area of the Triunfo Sanitary District-- roughly Thousand Oaks and Westlake--can get regular project updates and advanced notice of public workshops on the planned reclaimed water storage facilities by calling 658-9605. Or they can read updates mailed with their water bills.

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