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Sewage in O.C. goes full circle

Intensive cleaning will yield drinking water and a buffer against import cost hikes and shortages.

January 02, 2008|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

More than a decade ago, Los Angeles built a small reclamation system in the eastern San Fernando Valley. The $55-million plant was closed in 2000 because of the public's distaste over the so-called toilet-to-tap process.

"Cheap political shots have closed some of these efforts," said Connor Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, an environmental group based in Santa Monica. "All of Southern California should be doing these projects. They represent an efficient use of local resources. They are cost-effective and one of the most environmentally friendly things you can do."

In Orange County, water reclamation has not faced much opposition thanks to public awareness and the water district's extensive marketing campaign: plant tours, neighborhood pizza parties and hundreds of public meetings to explain the process.

The outreach effort has resulted in endorsements from scores of elected officials as well as civic, community and environmental organizations.

Public acceptance was also helped by the fact that since 1976 the county has been pumping about 15 million gallons of reclaimed sewer water a day into the groundwater basin to protect it from saltwater intrusion.

For decades, the aquifer has been plagued by saltwater that flows in as fresh water is pumped out of underground reservoirs along the coast. The condition can be checked and reduced by injecting treated water back into the ground to act as a shield.

District officials estimate that 90% of the treated water from the district's old reclamation plant -- Water Factory 21 -- has made it into the county's drinking water supply without a risk to public health.

"We are really just helping ourselves," Ferryman said. "Communities are waking up, especially those in semiarid regions. They are beginning to realize that you need reliability in your water supplies."

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