In 2008, Orange County Water District in southern California began a bold effort to transform sewage into drinking water.
In partnership with the Orange County Sanitation District, it uses micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light to purify locally generated treated wastewater. The finished water then gets pumped into local groundwater aquifers, where it becomes part of the municipal drinking supply.
Today, after an investment of some $600 million, the district’s Groundwater Replenishment System is the world’s largest producer of purified wastewater. And it has just launched a new program to spread the gospel.
Through special legislation, the district obtained state approval to bottle its recycled drinking water. It claims this is the first time recycled wastewater has been available in bottled form in North America. It plans a series of tour dates around California to give this bottled product free to the public.
Why did a local water agency go to such lengths? More importantly, what does the wider public think of its special water? To find out, Water Deeply recently spoke with Denis Bilodeau, who has served on the Orange County Water District board of directors for 17 years and is its current president.
Water Deeply: Why is Orange County Water District bottling its recycled wastewater?
Denis Bilodeau: We wanted to take it to the public to educate them that this technology exists, and we’re using it on the largest scale in the world here in Orange County.
In the United States we were the first ones to do this, so we wanted to get it out there to the public – because facilities like ours will be built all over the U.S., eventually, as the need for new water continues to exist in arid climates.
San Diego and Los Angeles are in the advanced planning process to build facilities like this. They sort of had some launch failures in those areas in the past. But we didn’t, because before we built our plant we went to the streets and educated the public about what we needed to do and why. We spoke to everybody who would listen to us. We ran ads on cable TV. So at the end of the day, we received no opposition to construction of our plant; it was quite an investment, but it definitely was necessary.
We’ve been at this for nine years now, but we want to re-engage the public and perhaps reach a larger audience. Hopefully, our message will resonate and facilities similar to ours will be built throughout southern California.
Water Deeply: And how are people reacting?
Bilodeau: Most recently, we set up a kiosk in Hollywood – right on Hollywood Boulevard – to hand [the water] out to tourists and educate them about what we’re doing down here.
We’re getting mixed reactions. Some people are extraordinarily supportive of what we’re doing. They get that it’s something that’s necessary, and that technology exists to purify water to a standard that’s drinkable like this.
For some people, there’s more of a psychological “yuck factor” they can’t get over, and they decline to try it.
We plan on taking our show on the road to college campuses, food festivals, athletics events – places where crowds congregate.
Water Deeply: You’ve always been very candid about this “yuck factor.” Why?
Bilodeau: I think people focus on the source of the water and when they think, “Oh boy, the source is sewage,” they have a natural aversion to that. They don’t want to consume that water. That’s understandable.
We conducted focus groups, 15 years ago, and decided early on that the best way to gain acceptance of our recycled water is to go to the public early and often, and educate them about what we’re doing. We are a government agency, we’re not a for-profit entity. We think it’s very important to be very candid with the public about how we make this water and why it’s necessary for our survival and our economy in Orange County. You can’t get much done in your economy if you don’t have any water.
Water Deeply: How would you compare the quality of your water to the bottled water people buy in stores?
Bilodeau: I would say our water is comparable to distilled water. Distilled water has very low mineral content, whereas if you buy bottled drinking water, there are minerals added for taste.
We do add some calcium carbonate back into the water. Something you may not realize is that pure water is very aggressive in that it tries to draw the minerals out of pipes. Water like ours that goes through reverse osmosis will actually eat away at the metal. So to stabilize the water and prevent that reaction, you have to add some minerals back in.
I would say our water, if you tasted it, is similar to bottled water. Ironically, here in Orange County there are bottled-water companies that take up their water through wells, and that’s what I replenish. So that bottled water is essentially water that went through my purification facility. They’re essentially bottling our water.
Water Deeply: This water supply also makes financial sense, doesn’t it?
Bilodeau: It’s the cheapest new source of water we have. It’s cheaper than ocean desalination. And it’s cheaper than importing water from the Sacramento Bay-Delta and the Colorado River, because it’s so energy-intensive to move that water across the state. It’s about two-thirds of the price of importing water. And I would say the water is more pure than the imported sources.
Water Deeply: Isn’t it true that all the water we drink is already recycled in some form?
Bilodeau: There’s no new water in the world. It’s all the same water that just keeps getting recycled over and over again.
When water is taken up from a river or stream, that water has already been discharged from a sewage treatment plant upstream. It was cleaned to a federal drinking water standard and discharged to a river and then taken up again and served to the people. It’s used over and over again.
Through the natural distillation process, water becomes vapor in clouds. Then you get precipitation as snow or rain that goes into streams and rivers. That water is then taken up and put through a filtration plant, and then it goes into a domestic water system. All water is recycled.
Something the public probably doesn’t realize is they have a similar water purification process on the International Space Station, and all their water is recycled – even the humidity in the air, as well as urine and everything. All the water on the space station is recycled and they drink it over and over again. If you want to be an astronaut, you gotta get used to that. Water is, like, 8lb (3.6kg) per gallon. So to ferry water up there, it gets pretty expensive. They’d have to send a new rocket up there every month just to bring water. Not quite economical.
Water Deeply: And this water also gives your customers some self-sufficiency, right?
Bilodeau: Yeah, it’s virtually drought-proof, because there’s always going to be wastewater created. It’s a local, new source of water that’s created.
It’s about one-third of our water now. And it wasn’t a cheap undertaking on our part. There was a lot of hand-wringing that occurred when we made this investment. And we’ve invested now, I think, $600 million into our recycling program and that’s the public’s money.
But I will tell you, these past six years have proven it was very much needed. It substantially buffered the effects of the drought in Orange County. Had we not had our recycling plant online, the water restrictions would have been much more draconian. Like, you cannot water your lawn – at all. We would have been in a huge crisis had we not constructed this plant.
Water Deeply: Do you have plans to expand production?
Bilodeau: Currently we manufacture about 100 million gallons per day. And we want to undertake the final expansion of the project, which would bring it up to 130 million gallons per day.
We have to raise the money to do that, and we need about $280 million total. We have a couple of potential sources. One is a federal government program administered by EPA called the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. We’re in the queue to seek funding from them. They’ll loan, I think, 49 percent of your need at a low interest rate.
The other half we’re seeking from something called the State Revolving Fund. Right now that fund is somewhat oversubscribed. But the Trump administration are touting that they want to get infrastructure built, and we believe they’re going to pump more money into this program so we can go build things that are important to society.
We hope to start the expansion in late 2018. We will be awarding a contract to an engineering firm in the next 30 days to design the blueprints and everything for the actual final expansion. So we’re going to get this shovel-ready and get our design complete while we’re out seeking the financing.