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The L.A. DWP Wants You to Drink Recycled Sewage -- and Pay $20 a Year For It

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Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 10:30 AM
click to enlarge Delish. - STUCK IN CUSTOMS VIA FLICKR

Updated with a sewage endorsement from the L.A. County Sanitation District.

The California drought may be temporarily on hold, but that doesn't mean Department of Water and Power problem-solvers have stopped scheming up new ways to keep your taps gushing and Bel Air fountain sculptures gurgling. But be warned: It'll cost you.

The LA Daily News runs a deja-vous piece this morning on a plan to turn almost 10 billion gallons of yearly sewage to crisp, clear drinking water. But this isn't the '"toilet-to-tap" plan of a decade ago," writes the Daily News. It would instead be modeled after the recycled sewage plan Orange County has been vetting since 2007:

First, microfilters smaller than 1/300th of a human hair remove most of the bacteria and viruses.

Then, reverse osmosis removes salts, hormones pharmaceuticals and other matter.

Finally, the water is treated with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to strip away any trace contaminants.

The Los Angeles Times further reassured residents of the flawless distilling process, back when the controversial O.C. program was getting off the ground:

The effluent is first pumped into the reclamation plant from the sanitation district's sewage treatment facility next door. The brackish water, which smells of deodorizer, flows into 26 holding basins equipped with 270 million micro-filters -- thin straws of porous material with holes no bigger than three-hundredths the thickness of a human hair.

Sounds sciencey and stuff. Still, any red-blooded human can't help but picture, briefly, a load of porta-potty gunk streaming from the faucet. (Sorry. Gross.) And food/drink businesses like Miller beer have always been some of the plan's biggest opponents, fearing customers will stay away if they know where their water has come from.

click to enlarge The DWP's Tillman plant in Encino, where the magic happens - LA DAILY NEWS
  • LA Daily News
  • The DWP's Tillman plant in Encino, where the magic happens

To qualm those fears, the DWP has spent the last year conducting a $2 million study (a quarter of which came from the federal government). The refining system would cost another $700 million, once deployed, and depends on new rate hikes -- about $20 per year per customer -- currently being considered by the L.A. City Council.

Granted, the increased fees would cover other services as well. But sewage in our sinks won't come cheap.

"It is one of the most expensive kinds of water you can create," said a spokesman for the San Diego mayor, back when our southernmost neighbor was considering the plan in 2007. "It is a large investment for a very small return."

Blech. We usually ask for transparency at the DWP, and are generally opposed to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"-type policies, but these are special circumstances. If you're going to do it, can you guys just do it, and pretend it's being imported from the high Sierras? The only crap we want to imagine in our water is, like, bald-eagle crap. We heard that gives us superpowers.

Update: Basil Hewitt and Earl Hartling, senior engineers at the L.A. County Sanitation District, argue that the plan is actually quite cost-effective, in the end -- and inevitable.

As Northern California cuts off our water supply, little by little, Hewitt says, "We need this water. There's no way around it."

Both engineers also remind us that, whether we like it or not, we're already drinking water that passed through somebody else's digestive system. (And astronauts have it worse: They supposedly have a filtering contraption hooked up to their space suits, through which they essentially drink their own urine. Beautiful.)

"There's no new water," says Hartling. "We have a finite water supply on this planet. The water you're drinking now -- a dinosaur probably peed in it."

And many L.A. County residents already drink water flowing in from, for example, Las Vegas, after going through a similar sewage treatment system. But ignorance is bliss. Hilariously, Hartling calls this "psychological boundary" -- in which we think "if it's coming from the river, it must be good" -- the "'Little House on the Prairie' syndrome."

Some specifics on the DWP's proposed system in particular, via the Daily News:

The plant already sends 40 million gallons of reclaimed water each day coursing into Lake Balboa, across the golf links and surrounding athletic fields of the Sepulveda Basin, through the DWP steam plant in Pacoima, and into the Los Angeles River and out to sea.

Advanced treatment would further purify some of that water, which would be used to replenish the wells under the San Fernando Valley.

Hewitt and Hartling go so far as to call wastewater treatment the only viable future for drinking water. So, yeah -- get used to it.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]

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