WATER SHORTAGE REVIVES RECYCLED WATER PROPOSALS

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By E.A. Barrera

Photos by Daisy Sharrock

October
1, 2008 (SAN DIEGO) -
Water is the single biggest issue facing the
future of San Diego County. Even the process for updating San Diego County’s
land use general plan - the so-called General Plan 2020 process - depends on
the availability and amount of water the area will sustain.

"Water is everything - it is the lifeblood of this county," said
Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "You can’t build without water. The groundwater
issue could supercede all other aspects of the GP-2020 process."

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a statewide drought in June, following
two straight years of below-average rainfall, low snowfall runoff and the largest
court-ordered water transfer restrictions in state history. 

"For the areas in Northern California that supply most of our water, this
March, April and May have been the driest ever in our recorded history," the
Governor said in June. "As a result, some local governments are rationing
water, developments can't proceed and agricultural fields are sitting idle.
We must recognize the severity of the crisis we face, so I am signing an Executive
Order proclaiming a statewide drought and directing my Department of Water
Resources and other entities to take immediate action to address the situation."  The
Executive Order directs local communities to implement water conservation or
potentially, rationing.           

In
the last decade, as Southern California has gone through both periods of drought
and abundance of rain, the region has also been rocked by potential changes
in the delivery of water. In San Diego County, water is delivered and collected
through three primary sources: The Sacramento/San Joaquin River, the Colorado
River, and the many reservoirs built within the region. But this is not an
equal triad. More than 80 percent of the county’s water currently comes
from the Colorado River, with less than 15 percent collected from local sources.

"About 65 percent of all the precipitation in California soaks into the
ground, evaporates or nurtures trees and plants. The rest is surface runoff
that flows into rivers, streams and lakes, according to the Southern California
Metropolitan Water District (MWD).  Most water supplies in Southern California
begin as snowmelt or rainfall that flows into rivers.

However, most of that precipitation—75 percent—occurs in the north,
while the majority of people live in the south. To alleviate this imbalance,
water is imported from one end of the state to the other through aqueducts
that are several hundred miles long. The MWD notes both federal and state rules
protect the drinking water along its journey.

"Several agencies
keep an eye on water, even before it reaches a treatment plant. These include
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State Water Resources Control
Board, the California Department of Health Services, and of course, the Metropolitan
Water District of Southern California," states
the MWD.

California
stands to lose 1.2 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River over
the next decade, under the multi-state Quantification Settlement Agreement
(QSA) governing future water rights from the Colorado River,  An
acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water needed to cover one acre
with water one foot deep. According to the MWD, the average family of four
uses about 163,000 gallons of water (about 2,608,000 glassfuls) per year.

The recycling treatment of water involves a multi-phase filtration of water,
which has nine steps. Both A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine
(NEJM) and a 1998 pamphlet distributed by the California Water Authority (CWA),
describe the process.

During the first two steps, the water passes through various
screens and sedimentation, including beds of anthracite coal, which removes
most suspended solids from the water. According to the CWA, the water at this
point is safe for irrigation and other non-drinking uses. However, if the need
ever arose to use such water for drinking purposes (such as a sustained drought;
a natural disaster; or an unnatural disaster, such as an act of terrorism),
additional steps would be taken.

After the initial filtration process for agricultural uses had occurred,
if the need arose to use such water for human consumption, then the water would
be sent through a treatment called "micro filtration." This process
further filters out any remaining solids. At that point, water is then run
through a procedure called "reverse osmosis," which pumps the water
through special membranes whose pours are so tiny, only water molecules or
something smaller would be able to pass through.

The 1993 NEJM study described
the differences in size between water molecules and other molecules by claiming
that if a water molecule were the size of a tennis ball, a virus would be the
size of a semi-truck, a bacteria the size of a pyramid, and a protozoa the
size of a volcano. The NEJM study went on to state that even the molecules
of microscopic metals and other inorganic compounds, as well as organic compounds,
would be too large to pass through the reverse osmosis membrane.

After the reverse osmosis procedure, the water
would be further cleaned by introducing "ion exchange," which reduces nitrate concentrations
to negligible levels, much as a water softener works. Then the disinfectant "Ozone" would
be released into the water for further cleansing.  Once this was done,
the recycled water would be blended into the surface water reservoirs, where
it would be mixed with the raw water supply. From the reservoir, the water
would once again be run through the normal filtration process before being
distributed to the general public.

 

To drink or not to drink?
According
to Mike Espiritu, the former Water Quality Superintendent with the Helix
Water District, after so much filtration, the recycled water would go into
the reservoirs cleaner than the water already there.

"There is a public perception problem - the ‘yuk’ factor -
that needs to be overcome. This is a very feasible and safe procedure," said
Espiritu in 1998, when the CWA was attempting to introduce the possibility
of using recycled water as a regular part of the drinking supply for San Diego
County residents.

Ted Mitchell, who at that time was the operations supervisor
for the Padre Dam Water District, echoed Mr. Espiritu’s comments.

"We've been doing this since the Sixties," said Mitchell. "The
technology is available and the environmental regulations we are under are
very strong. I personally have no problem drinking the recycled water after
it has gone through this procedure."

In fact, during that 1998 debate over
the use of so-called "toilet to
tap" drinking water, the CWA insisted that San Diego County residents
had always drank some measure of recycled water. According to the CWA, the
Colorado River has always contained a certain amount of sewage, which is eventually
filtered out.

But it is one thing to drink water that has been naturally filtered through
hundreds of miles of riverbed and then processed through a reservoir. It is
quite another to drink water originating directly from raw sewage into a water
processing plant. Critics of the idea of using recycled water for human consumption
pointed to the outbreak of cryptosporidium infection, which sickened over 400,000
residents of Milwaukee in the spring of 1993.

Reviews of the Milwaukee outbreak reported in the NEJM and by the Wisconsin
Department of Health and Social Services, indicated that natural flooding overwhelmed
the Milwaukee sewage system, creating the massive outbreak. A heavy snowfall
followed by spring flooding and a heavy storm contributed to sending record
amounts of overflow from the Milwaukee Harbor into Lake Michigan. This caused
sewer overflows and a sewage bypass, which created an overworked wastewater
treatment plant system and sent the cryptosporidium virus into the water.

Cryptosporidium
is a virus, which passes through the intestines of animals, mostly cattle,
and exits through their fecal matter. It is a common problem in agricultural
areas, which would present concerns for residents of agriculture-rich San Diego.
It can cause severe stomach flu-like symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting,
fatigue and low-grade fever. The disease is particularly susceptible to waterborne
delivery.

According to the NEJM, in healthy persons,
the infection can last up to two weeks. But in people with weak immune systems
- such as the elderly, babies, and those diagnosed with other immune deficiency
illnesses such as the HIV virus, cryptosporidium infection can be deadly. During
the Milwaukee outbreak, fifty cryptosporidium-associated deaths were reported,
according to the Wisconsin Bureau of Public Health.

Ken Weinberg, the Director of Water Research for the County Water Authority,
stated in 1998 that a cryptosporidium outbreak would be unlikely in San Diego
and blamed the Milwaukee Water Works for not being equipped with the same level
of protections and filtration systems that San Diego maintained.

"The level of filtration (used in California) is pretty amazing. The membranes
that we run the water through in the reverse osmosis and micro filtration phases
really filter out any molecules other than water," said Weinberg.

Both Orange County, California, as well as much of Northern Virginia has been
using recycled water in their drinking supply since the middle 1970's.

"There is a CWA pilot program going on in Carlsbad to process 40 million
gallons of seawater per day through a desalinization plant," said former
Ramona Municipal Water District manager Tom Brammell. "Eventually that
should increase to 50 million gallons per day. Other plants are being developed
in San Onofre and the South Bay area.

Brammell agreed with Espiritu’s
description of the problem as a public ‘yuk’ factor.
He noted that the filtration process for recycled water is tighter than with
bottled water.

"Personally, drinking recycled water is ok with me. The filtration and
dilution make the water extremely clean," said Brammell.

Weinberg noted
that political pressure from the six other states which use the Colorado River
as their drinking supply source would be a continual source of pressure for
Southern California and San Diego to use less water than it currently does.

"We have to face the fact that San Diego County needs to create alternative
water sources so as to be less dependent on outside water being brought in," said
Weinberg.

E.A. Barrera has been writing on politics, land use, arts and
culture in San Diego since 1997. He has won six San Diego Press Club awards
for Journalism in the last three years. He is a life-long resident of San
Diego County. He is currently waiting for the Baltimore Orioles to break
out of their 11-season slump and regain their former glory.