By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Register, 7/30/14
The vague odor is “the smell of water reliability,” according to Ron Wildermuth. The manager of public and government affairs for the West Basin Municipal Water District is referring to the 45 million gallons of wastewater that are recycled every day at the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo, providing water that can irrigate lawns and golf courses and replenish aquifers severely impacted by California’s worst recorded drought in history.
It is the largest water recycler of its kind in the world, and a possible model for increasing supplies of a diminishing resource in Southern California – fresh water. With the summer wearing on and the drought deepening, I decided to take a tour of the plant. I even drank a glass of water that might, at one point, in part, have been flushed from my very own toilet.
The source water for Edward C. Little is pre-treated at the Hyperion Treatment Plant, the largest wastewater treatment facility in the city. Its ultimate recipients: 17 coastal L.A. cities, including Malibu, West Hollywood, Culver City and Hermosa Beach, none of which currently receive the recycled water through their home faucets. Rather, the water is used to irrigate landscapes, cool power plants and service other non-potable needs. In California, water recycled from sewer water isn’t approved for drinking, though some of the wastewater recycled at Edward C. Little is purified to a level that is certainly drinkable.
Wildermuth estimates it will take about 10 years before the state allows recycled water to flow through the same pipes that carry drinking water, though it could fast track depending on what happens with the drought.
At the West Basin Municipal Water District, the agency’s goal is like many in Southern California. It aims to reduce the amount of imported water from its current 66 percent to 33 percent by 2020. And it intends to do it by doubling the rates of conservation and water recycling. Further into the future, Wildermuth said the area’s water needs can only be met by adding ocean water desalination to the mix, and adding even more recycled water to the groundwater supply.
In February 2014, Edward C. Little had recycled 150 billion gallons of water – enough to serve approximately 3.7 million people for an entire year.
Of the 230 million tons of wastewater treated there daily, about 5 tons are so-called biosolids. What are those solids? Whatever is flushed down our toilets, and other solids washed down our drains from sinks, clothes washers and bathtubs.
As for the majority of what flows into Edward C. Little, it’s water. The water just needs to be cleaned. That happens through a complicated system of vats and pumps and pipes and tubes that begins with micro filtration systems, the newest of which was installed last year.
For irrigation water, the solids fall to the bottom of the vat, leaving cleaner water at its surface. The cleaner water is then filtered through anthracite coal, sand and gravel to trap the microscopic particles, resulting in water that’s clean enough to irrigate the golf course next door.
But the water purification doesn’t stop there. For customers that require a higher level of purification, some of the water at Edward C. Little is treated by plastic straws with holes 1/300th the size of a human hair to remove solids. Then it goes through a reverse osmosis process that removes any trace of pharmaceuticals, and is treated with ultraviolet light to break down the chemical bonds of a common ingredient in beers, wines and lunch meats into elements that are safe. Minerals and chlorine are added back to the water, and la voila. Thirty minutes later, there’s perfectly drinkable water.
So I drank it. And you know what? It tasted even better than the water that comes out of the tap at home.
Wildermuth said he’s been drinking the plant’s sewer water for 15 years, and he appears to be completely healthy, even running marathons at age 70.
“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s over,” said Wildermuth, who is working with the Water Reuse Association to help change California law that prohibits perfectly drinkable, former wastewater from being piped to Southern Californians’ homes, even though it’s the purest water possible.
As I drained the last drops from my plastic cup, Wildermuth smiled. “You just stepped into the future.”
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