'Toilet to Tap' Planned for Orange County Water Orange County's water-purification plant will soon be turning wastewater into drinkable water. Many residents say that no matter how practical, they find the idea onerous.
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'Toilet to Tap' Planned for Orange County Water

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'Toilet to Tap' Planned for Orange County Water

'Toilet to Tap' Planned for Orange County Water

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

In California, the demand for water is steadily outpacing the supply. The droughts and dry weather are forcing many communities here to restrict water use. So far the city of Long Beach has been most successful. People there are actually using less water than they have in a decade.

Congratulations, Long Beach.

BRAND: That's after local officials bought full-page ads in newspapers and posted YouTube videos showing residents in the act of over-watering their lawns. The campaign is trying to get people to feel personally responsible for their water use, and so far it's working.

CHADWICK: In neighboring Orange County, they're trying to find a way to increase water supply and they're resorting to what you might consider desperate measures.

BRAND: The OC has spent almost half a billion dollars on its new water purification plant, which is scheduled to come online this week.

CHADWICK: And where does that water come from? Here is a toast to water conservation from reporter Dan Konecky of KCRW.

DAN KONECKY: This is not a new source of water. This water has already been through the pipes - your pipes, my pipes. It's traveled down the drain, and now it's back again.

Shivaji Deshmukh is the program manager for Orange County's Groundwater Replenishment Program. His tour of the new plant starts in the control room, where operators stare at giant computer screens, which show the status of every pipe, water basin, and filter in the system.

Mr. SHIVAJI DESHMUKH (Program Manager, Orange County Groundwater Replenishment Program): This is an amazing control system. You can keep track of every valve and every control point. It's measuring pH and conductivity, which is a reflection of how much salt there is in the water. So we're keeping track of this constantly.

KONECKY: But the real action takes place downstairs, in the labyrinth of pipes. These engines push the water through the plant's micro filters.

(Soundbite of machine noise)

KONECKY: Using high-pressure reverse osmosis, it's then forced through a thin membrane. Finally, the water's injected with peroxide and blasted with ultraviolet light to remove lingering hormones and dissolved pharmaceuticals. At the end of every day, 70 millions gallons of drinking water, 10 percent of the county's needs, get pumped back underground into the aquifer.

Mr. MIKE WEHNER (Assistant General Manager, Orange County Water District): We return the water to nature. We put the water back in the ground and we let Mother Nature take over from us.

KONECKY: Mike Wehner is assistant general manager of the water district. He says his product is so pure that they have to add lime back in to keep the water from eroding the cement pipes.

Mr. WEHNER: I think it's a viable solution everywhere in the world. People don't have any objection to sending astronauts up into space and having them live for weeks at a time recycling their own waste water. When we get down here on the ground, we can apply the same kinds of technologies.

Ms. MURIEL WATSON (Retired School Teacher): I'm all for recycled water, but don't put it in our reservoirs or our drinking fountains. You know, why take the chance?

KONECKY: That's Muriel Watson, a retired San Diego schoolteacher who's Revolting Grandmas group is revolted by her city's plan to replenish its reservoirs with treated sewage water.

Other California cities are also looking into the idea, though they are wary of the public reacting just like Watson. Yuck. But that yuck factor is only part of the recycled water debate. It's also about energy. About one-fifth of California's energy is used to move water from north to south through the state water project.

Bruce Resnick(ph) says new sources of potable water shouldn't demand even more.

Mr. BRUCE RESNICK (San Diego Coastkeepers): We want to make sure that we're not trading water security for energy insecurity.

KONECKY: Resnick's group, San Diego Coastkeepers, supports water recycling. He even likes the term toilet to tap because the process uses less energy and emits less carbon than the existing state water project.

Mr. RESNICK: It reduces our energy footprint as long as we don't use these new water supplies to then sprawl out and have more development. If we actually use it to offset our imports, to be a win for us on energy, of course it helps promote, you know, water stability and security.

KONECKY: Just outside the reverse osmosis chamber of Orange County's water purification plant, three spouts are filling three separate water basins. Two of them hold a brown mineral-heavy brine that will be dumped into the ocean. In the other sink, clear, cool water. Shivaji Deshmukh just happens to have brought along plastic cups.

Mr. DESHMUKH: This is where you can take a sip of the water.

(Soundbite of water)

Mr. DESHMUKH: Cheers.

KONECKY: Cheers.

Mr. DESHMUKH: Cheers.

KONECKY: That water tasted just like water.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Konecky.

BRAND: Hmm. Suddenly I'm not so - not so thirsty.

Here is another attempt to save water in Las Vegas. The local water company is paying homeowners to tear up their lawns, one dollar a square foot, and you never have to water again.

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