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Daily Drips

”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.

I bet no department in the city -- on the whole -- knows less about water resources than Hahn’s does. But even allowing that, this looks like the desperate summation of a lawyer aware that the facts aren‘t on his side.

What’s wrong with fully recycled water? Are there any known hazards? None. Not that Hahn can mention. Has the process been used before? Yes, successfully, for more than 30 years. So much for L.A. residents as ”test subjects.“

As for Cal-Fed, Hahn, of all people, ought to know that, by federal statute, this Central Valley irrigation project is restricted to farmers in that basin. Conservation? When did the city attorney last tell us to xeriscape our lawns? Bad enough that Hahn appears to be sabotaging one of his own clients -- the DWP -- in any future litigation on water purity. But you might have thought that by now, Hahn, as a leading mayoral candidate, would have made some mature policy determination here, considering that our water supply is probably the city‘s key long-term issue. Instead, all we’ve got is this panic-stricken shriek reaction to a tabloid headline.

Here are some facts for Mr. Hahn. The fourth largest river in California is Los Angeles‘ sewer-plant outflow. Every day, it loses some half-billion gallons of dirty water into the ocean. A fraction of that water comes from local wells, including those the East Valley project proposes to recharge. But most of that water comes from (some say ”is robbed from“) someplace else -- the Owens Valley Aqueduct, the Colorado River, the Sacramento Delta.

Both of the latter sources are permeated by wastes of the many cities that drain into them, plus the manure and chemicals of farms and ranches; in their raw state, the sources already resemble treated sewer water. Los Angeles gets an ever more limited share of these sources -- the Colorado, we share with three other fast-growing states and Mexico; the Delta, with Northern and Central California. As Hahn is perfectly aware, we’ve already lost a lot of aqueduct water due to the court-mandated restoration of Mono Lake. We‘ll lose more water now that similar Owens Valley litigation has gone the same way.

The DWP doesn’t get much credit usually, but the East Valley project is among the most foresighted moves it‘s ever made. You don’t need a law degree to see that in 10 years or so, even minus another overdue drought, there‘ll be many more Angelenos and much less water. So we can’t go on wasting it, whether or not Jim Hahn gets skittish because someone might have peed in it five years ago.

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