By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
”Tapping Toilet Water“ was the Hearst-like headline in the Daily News. It was both an attention grabber and a blatant falsehood in terms of what the story was about, which was something called the East Valley Water Recycling Project. This is our Department of Water and Power‘s planned dumping of some tertiary-treated sewage water into 500 feet of soil for eventual well-water consumption five years from now. The dismal, three-word headline on April 16 topped an otherwise lucid and accurate article. That is, except when it came to the key point of whether the Department of Water and Power had given fair ”warning“ on this issue. After all, the water in question wouldn’t be coming out of local taps until 2005 at the earliest.
It depends on what you mean by warning. Not only were there public hearings -- as the News account admits -- from 1991 to 1997; at least as long ago as 1987, the DWP was bombarding concerned parties, council members, DWP board members, media agencies and local leaders) with news releases on the eventual use of ”recycled“ water for general use. I wrote quite a few of them myself while working for the agency 13 years ago.
Long after I left, the DWP kept churning those notices out: One mid-‘90s release tells how the ”East Valley Water Recycling Project captures water already used before it flows out to the ocean,“ mixes it with natural ground water ”toward the goal of reusing 10 percent of our fresh water supplies by the year 2010.“ On and on they go. A former DWP PR person told me that more than 10,000 copies of one 1996 pamphlet -- with an intelligible description and half-page color drawing of the water going from the treatment plant in Van Nuys, via pipeline to Sun Valley, thence down into 500 feet of subsoil, and then, years later, into the wells and the water mains -- were circulated. The three-page description and diagrams in this piece are so good that the Daily News used them in its own illustrations in the April 16 article.
But maybe it’s easier to recycle news releases than ground water. Most of the DWP‘s probably got tossed unread. Others go into office files, to be dumped at the first opportunity. Councilman Joel Wachs, for instance, made a huge fuss about not having been kept in the DWP loop. But I well recall his office nearly two years ago, when the big temporary move from old City Hall during its renovation was in progress. Huge trash cans overflowed with old files. I suppose a few hundred pages of my and my colleagues’ best PR efforts perished in those bins. This was unfortunate for everyone, because it meant no one representing the East Valley was tracking the project as it moved toward completion. And whose fault was that file-tossing anyway?
In any case, when the News called Wachs‘ office, everyone there acted as though they’d been willfully left in the dark. Wachs later said he didn‘t want to preclude the project -- nice of him -- but first he wanted ”a public airing.“ Since then, the DWP put the project on hold for now, though a council committee is supposed to study the proposal soon. A Wachs deputy spoke of there as yet being ”no panic in the streets“ about the project. (One news report cited 24 DWP complaints about the project out of 635,000 DWP customers.)
The Wachs deputy told me he was busily sifting the Internet for ”facts,“ pro and con, on sewage purification. Way to go, trusting your own city departments’ expertise. But according to the News coverage, there really don‘t seem to be any indications contrary to the use of such recycled water. It is, after all, exactly what county residents with wells and septic tanks have been using all along. The process is in use at several county locations, including Montebello. In suburban New Jersey, the Passaic River takes in effluent upstream and turns it into drinking water downstream.
All the other evidence suggests that after extensive treatment and filtration and a few years of subterranean settling, recycled wastewater contains no germs or viruses (though it gets chlorinated anyway), while any harmful chemicals that occur get removed by the normal water-purification process. All our water is recycled. All water has been through someone, someplace. So why hit the panic button because of a dumb ”Toilet to Tap“ headline? It should be noted, by the way, that in November of 1995, the News itself editorially endorsed both the wastewater-recycling concept and the Valley project.
To be fair to Wachs, even Mayor Dick Riordan tried to distance himself from the project by saying he didn’t recall it -- until he was reminded that he and Pete Wilson had promoted the plan at a 1994 news conference. Further panic spread among certain other mayoral candidates (not, to his credit, to Steve Soboroff). Antonio Villaraigosa made some fairly irresponsible statements. But no one hit the button harder than City Attorney Jim Hahn. In a May 2 communication to DWP chief David Freeman, he said: ”I urge you to halt this project immediately and engage in a detailed community-education program that includes public hearings so that those who would be impacted by such a project would have their voices heard. Furthermore, it has not been made clear that every other option has been explored or exhausted, e.g., Cal-Fed and water conservation . . . The residents of Los Angeles should not be test subjects.“ Test subjects. In case you didn‘t know it, folks, Dr. Mengele runs the DWP.