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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toilet to Tap

Air Date: Week of

Jon Beaupre reports on a controversial plan in Los Angeles to put treated sewage water back into the drinking water system.


CURWOOD: With its water resources stretched to the limit, Los Angeles is looking at new ways to slake its thirst. City officials say they would like to try a controversial new method of recycling that will put treated sewage water back into the drinking water supply. But as Jon Beaupre reports, the proposal is getting a less than enthusiastic response at community hearings.

BEAUPRE: It starts here...

(A toilet flushes)

BEAUPRE: And here...

(Shower water runs)

BEAUPRE: And here.

(A garbage disposal runs)

BEAUPRE: The millions of toilets, showers, and garbage disposals in southern California produce a huge, continuous supply of wastewater. This water is normally treated in sewage plants and pumped out to the ocean. Currently, most of the area's water comes from hundreds of miles away, from either the Colorado River to the east or the Owens Valley to the north. But with the population exploding, the pressure is on Los Angeles to find new water sources closer to home. David Freeman is the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the DWP. He describes the proposed water treatment process.

FREEMAN: We are recycling water that has been cleaned up to drinking water standards. And then, mind you, and then put through hundreds of feet of sand filter, before it enters the aquifer along with other water that enters it. And then that water is five years later pumped out, and becomes part of the water supply. The one thing we know is that the water in this tap project will be super clean.

BEAUPRE: After five years that super clean water Mr. Freeman talks about would be pumped out of the ground. It would then rejoin the water supply coming from the Owens Valley or Colorado River, at plants like this one in Slymar north of Los Angeles.


BEAUPRE: It is here and at about a dozen other plants around the city that the water is filtered, purified, oxygenated, and sterilized for public use.


BEAUPRE: Currently only a tiny amount, under ten percent, of Los Angeles's water comes from the ground under the city. The new DWP plan would increase that percentage considerably. Two years ago the city of San Diego, only 120 miles to the south, embarked on a similar project. According to the deputy mayor of San Diego, Harry Mathis, the plan was defeated by political jockeying.

MATHIS: There were a number of references that this was just another case of the more affluent people in the northern part of the city, they're the ones creating the sewage at the north city plant. They're going to treat it and send it down to the folks living in their area, who were going to have to then drink it. It really got ugly.

BEAUPRE: To many, the defeat of the recycling project in San Diego was more than just a public relations failure. Some scientists felt the aesthetic questions of water flowing from toilet to tap were secondary to the safety of that retreated water. Dr. Daniel Okun is Keenan Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He says the planned Los Angeles system is fine for the removal of disease-causing organisms, but insufficient for removal of other chemicals in the water.

OKUN: It is not intended at all to remove the trace organic chemicals, which also are in wastewater. That treatment process, which involves just biological treatment followed by chlorine disinfection, is fine for microorganisms, but it doesn't do anything -- in fact, it adds to the number and concentration of synthetic organic chemicals.

BEAUPRE: Dr. Okun explains that the chemical byproducts of the purification process could find their way in increased concentrations back into the drinking water supply. He adds that other methods currently in use for the removal of small amounts of trace organic chemicals, such as membrane and granular-activated charcoal filtration, are currently too expensive to use in city water systems. Robert Hultquist is the Chief of Drinking Water Technical Operations for the State Department of Health Services. He acknowledges Professor Okun's concerns, but states that his agency is comfortable with the standards currently in place, at least for the first three years of this project.

HULTQUIST: I've contacted experts that I felt were skeptical of this activity and spent considerable time talking with them about their concerns, listening to their concerns.

BEAUPRE: Including Dan Okun.?

HULTQUIST: Yes, I have corresponded with Dan Okun. I mean I respect Dan Okun. He's a real expert in this field. And we feel that we've addressed the concerns he has.

BEAUPRE: Mr. Hultquist says he's pleased that the public has taken an interest in the project, even if not all the views are positive. The Los Angeles City Council will make final decisions on the $55 million plan this fall. Opinions are mixed among residents.

WOMAN: No way. No thank you. (Laughs) I'll drink Diet Coke the rest of my life.

MAN: See, I just went to my doctor. He told me that I have bacteria that came from the water that causes ulcers.

BEAUPRE: You wouldn't be very encouraged by that plan?

MAN: I'm not encouraged at all by that.

WOMAN 2: I don't want to drink water from the toilet. Just thinking about it is disgusting.

MAN 2: I mean if it's approved, I don't mind it. I think that's great. I like recycling

MAN 3: I think it's good that we can do whatever we can to make the sewage problem that we have better.

BEAUPRE: If the new sewage water treatment plan is approved, it will join an number of others in the country. Three here in southern California and one in Fairfax County, Virginia. Pumping over 11 million gallons a year back into the ground under Los Angeles, enough to supply about 70,000 families, would certainly help relieve the region's water shortage. Politicians just need to convince scientists and citizens that the drinking water will be safe.

(Flowing water)

BEAUPRE: For Living on Earth, I'm Jon Beaupre in Los Angeles.



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