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PATT MORRISON

L.A.'s water makeover

July 24, 2008|Patt Morrison

Reality TV loves extreme makeovers. Do you?

Because Los Angeles is doing a before-and-after makeover on our water PR -- not to mention the H2O itself.

The ugly "before" water image goes back to the 1990s and the "reclaimed water" that Jay Leno loved to mock. Purified sewage water sent back through the taps? Gross! Ick! We hated it!

But check out that "after" water now! It's getting styled and primped and dressed for success. Are you ready to see the new, improved "reclaimed water"?

Dude, it's the same water. In any makeover, the difference is window dressing, confidence and attitude. In L.A., it's still the same wastewater recycled for reuse. What will make the difference this time is how it's packaged and pitched.

Unless you want your water delivered by eyedropper in the future, reclaimed water is the way it's going to be. We waste multiple millions of gallons every year -- water that can be cleaned and purified and reused. And you wasted four or five gallons of it this morning, letting the tap run while you brushed your teeth. First, don't keep the tap running while you brush, and as for the water you did use, let's scrub it pure and use it again.

That last part's the reclaimed water principle, whether it's wastewater from your sink or -- here's where the gag reflex sets in -- the toilet.

In the early 1990s, L.A. spent $55 million on a reclaimed water plant. And in a spectacular case of lousy timing, the reclaimed water project was ready to start up just before the 2001 mayoral election. In the absence of a boffo DWP sales pitch for reclaimed water, politicians inflamed and then caved in to voters' fears arising from the irresistibly damning phrase "toilet to tap" water. The bewildered DWP engineers had to shut down their new project after a few days. In those few days, the DWP calculated, the little reclaimed water that did come out of that $55-million plant cost $2.75 a gallon, instead of the third of a cent a gallon we pay for the rest of our water. Now that's ugly.

Cue the sparkly magic music for 2008's makeover transformation. What's different now?

The drought is much worse. The science of treating water is much better. And for once, the DWP may be smarter about its PR. It would have to build a new facility with all the new water treatment whiz-bangs, and the city wouldn't see reclaimed water for another 10 years. But David Nahai, the head of the DWP, has at least decided to get well ahead of the PR curve: "Folks on the street who'll hear about wastewater treatment [may] have some reticence about it. ... The more this languishes, the more the fires of suspicion are going to get fanned. We need to go out quicker."

No kidding. It embarrasses me to say it, but L.A. has to learn how from Orange County. Behind the Orange Shower Curtain, a massive recycled water system went online in January. By next year, it'll be reclaiming 70 million gallons a day, cutting back the sewage dumps into the ocean and saving millions by not having to buy water from elsewhere.

Orange County wisely started its recycled water sales job five years ago -- pizza parties with brochures, plant tours, pep talks and public meetings, month after month before the reclamation system went online.

What a difference from L.A. in 2000. Poor PR was compounded by secession rumblings in the Valley, where residents thought they'd get "stinky" recycled municipal water. Led by then-councilman and mayoral candidate Joel Wachs, the politicians caved. (The DWP should buy a plane ticket to bring Wachs back to L.A. from New York so he can explain why there's nothing wrong with "toilet to tap" and tell his former Valley constituents to get with the program.)

Where do you all think the water that you drink now is coming from, anyway? Angels' butts? It comes from far and wide, and even from places that may recycle wastewater themselves. San Diego is planning its own wastewater reclamation, and as the City Council president told the Wall Street Journal, "the Colorado River is not filled with Dasani."

If politicians believe it, they've got to sell it. No one sold it better than B.T. Collins. He was Gov. Jerry Brown's Conservation Corps director when the state was spraying malathion to stop Mediterranean fruit flies. Collins was so eager to convince Californians that malathion was harmless that he drank a glass of it in front of 900 corps members.

Nahai promised me on the radio last week that he would drink the first glass of reclaimed water to come out of DWP pipes. Antonio Villaraigosa promised me the same thing this week. One glass, two straws, please.

As for the rest of you -- suck it up, L.A. How do you like it: on the rocks, or straight up?--

patt.morrison@latimes.com

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