If you’ve been to Disneyland, Cambria, many parts of Los Angeles, then you most likely had a swig of highly treated recycled water. Recycled water meaning, yes, it was once in a sewage treatment plant.
For many years this recycled water has helped Orange County meet the needs of its growing population and reduce the toll on its declining aquifers. Soon, the same kind of water may be coming to Clovis and Fresno’s drinking water.
Fresno and Clovis have sewage treatment plants equipped to recycle water to a level that meets state drinking water standards. For now, neither city is using the water for drinking because of state rules. Both cities irrigate landscaping with the water. Fresno is starting a pilot program for downtown, southwest Fresno and Roeding Park landscaping. For nearly 10 years, Clovis has been using the highly treated water from its water reuse plant for landscaping, too.
Now, Clovis and Fresno are planning the next steps. They are among 22 California agencies working with the state Water Board on permits to allow them to deliver some of this water to your tap within a few years.
It’s an idea whose time has come, says Dan Schlenk, professor of Environmental Toxicology at U.C.-Riverside. Schlenk has served on two state water board panels examining emerging contaminants. He says there shouldn’t be any concerns about drinking tertiary treated recycled water.
“The water that is treated is not the same water that comes out of the toilet," he says. "That water undergoes a tremendous amount of treatment and it costs a lot of money to do that. There are so many steps after the toilet part that happen, before it gets to the tap, and most people don’t realize that.”
The point, Schlenk says is that “every drop of water that you drink comes from someplace else. It may go to the ocean volatilize in the atmosphere and come down as rain, but every drop of water is recycled."
And this water is safe. “The bottom line risk is extremely low, if measurable at all.”
To make that water drinkable will require the cities to go through the state permitting process.
Mike Carbajal, Fresno’s assistant director for the Department of Public Utilities, explains that the city wants to eventually “take some of that recycled water and put it into our existing recharge facilities that we operate to allow the water to percolate back into the aquifer over a period of time. We can subsequently pump that water that becomes groundwater back out and utilize it for potable water purposes.”
In Fresno, the proposed destination for highly treated water is Leaky Acres at Highway168 and Ashlan Avenue. The city also has a much smaller recharge site west of Fresno. Clovis plans to pipe its treated water to the Marion Avenue basin for recharge on the city’s north side.
Once in the basins, the water will mix with river water, percolate into the ground, then into aquifers and wells before going into homes.
That plan will require more of a financial commitment from the city’s ratepayers or get financed through grants and loans to pay the cost of new pipelines, Carbajal says. Fresno officials are eyeing other projects around the state, specifically Pure Water San Diego, a 20-year plan by San Diego to have one-third of its drinking water supply come from recycled water.
ALL IS NOT WELL
For decades, Clovis and Fresno grew. Clovis is four times larger than it was 30 years ago and Fresno is twice the size. During that time, both cities were drawing water from wells. This drained aquifers and lowered water tables.
In the past 15 years, Fresno and Clovis began using water from local rivers, known as surface water. The cities built water treatment plants to clean river water from the Kings and San Joaquin rivers to reduce pressure on wells.
Fresno also is employing $105 million in low-interest state loans for the Fresno-Clovis Regional Wastewater Reclamation Facility on Jensen Avenue to produce 5 million gallons of recycled water each day.
“The city has historically been a groundwater-based system, Carbajal says. "All of our potable water was pumped directly out of the ground through 260 wells… our groundwater levels have dropped by more than 100 feet.”
A major reason Fresno and Clovis are planning to boost use of recycled water is the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Gary Serrato is general manager for Fresno Irrigation District and he says "The Central Valley has been identified as a critically overdrafted basin that means we are taking more out than we are putting back in.”
Each critically designated basin must have a sustainability plan developed by 2020.
“By 2040 we need to be sustainable," Serrato says. "That means… we are putting a like amount back into the underground so that our groundwater tables do not continue to decline.”
And, this means conservation and using every available water supply, including surface water, groundwater recharge and recycled water, Serrato says.
"We are going to be looking at how we take advantage of those water supplies as well… they all become part of the overall fix to get us sustainable by 2040," Serrato says.
Clovis Public Utilities Director Scott Redelfs says the state’s groundwater sustainability requirements loom large.
"We don’t want to have any negative consequences in our aquifer so if we can’t meet future demand with our water supply, or even if we can, we want to decrease well pumping," Redlfs says. "In order to do that, we want to look at every additional available water supply we can get.”
YOU LIKELY DRANK IT ALREADY
Getting recycled water into the two cities’ drinking water systems is still a couple years away. It will take another year or two to complete the permitting process, says Randy Barnard, the state’s recycled water unit chief in the state Water Resources Control Board. When that’s done, the cities can start building pipelines.
He says the state has reported no recycled water quality issues during Water Board during monitoring.
“If you have ever visited LA or you’ve been to Disneyland, and you drank some water in those areas, you’ve drank some potable reuse recycled water," Barnard says. "Nobody can tell the difference. It’s very protective of public health. As a matter of fact, Orange County Water District is a world leader in the process.”
Other places using this water are Cambria and Monterey's program just recently got underway, Barnard says.
The state Water Board also is preparing new rules to allow treated recycled water to get added into a drinking water system or into a raw water supply immediately upstream from a water treatment plant. Those rules are expected in 2023.