Whittier Daily News December 12, 2009

Local water agencies hope to get their hands on sewer water

By Rebecca Kimitch, Staff Writer

From the Owens Valley in the 1900s to Mono Lake in the 1980s to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta today, fights over water are nothing new in California.

But the latest brewing battle has taken a different, less scenic, twist: water agencies are clamoring to get their share of sewer water.

“It is a finite source, and not everybody will be able to get what they want,” said Earle Hartling, water recycling coordinator for Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.

The problem stems from Sanitation Districts promises to deliver 45,000 acre-feet of recycled wastewater from its San Jose creek facility when less than 40,000 acre-feet of that water will be available in coming years.

And this has the Central Basin Municipal Water District worried.

“If we are all trying to get to it, that’s good news – we are all looking for ways to reduce our dependence on imported water,” Central Basin General Manager Art Aguilar said.

But, he added, water officials “have a lot of questions and concerns.”

“We are wondering where all the water is going to come from,” Aguilar said.

Much of the recycled sewage water is promised to a $210 million project known as the Groundwater Reliability Improvement Program (GRIP).

The project will treat recycled water to drinking-level standards, rather than using it for just irrigation and industrial uses, as is done with most of the recycled water in the San Gabriel Valley.

The project is being developed through a partnership between the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, and several other water agencies that do not include the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

While Aguilar said Central Basin hasn’t come out in official opposition to GRIP, lobbyists working on behalf of the district tried to prevent the project from getting earmarked funding from the state.

One of the principal arguments Central Basin made against the project was the amount of treated wastewater it demands, water that Central Basin says other cities and agencies already have dibs on.

Sanitation Districts’ Hartling says no one need draw a sword yet – the agency can provide all the water it promised.

“We are committed to supplying everyone their contractual amounts,” Hartling said.

But to meet those obligations, Sanitation Districts need to build new infrastructure, at a cost.

Who will pay for those improvements is unclear.

“It hasn’t been decided,” Hartling said.

Until infrastructure is constructed, recycled water is being provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

And those that don’t show a good-faith effort to use their allotment will lose it, though Hartling doesn’t anticipate this happening to anyone.

The GRIP project will be one of the biggest users of recycled water, taking about half of the remaining wastewater from the Sanitation Districts’ San Jose Creek facility.

If a solution doesn’t come soon, the delivery problem could grow.

That’s because the GRIP project envisions a second phase that would require an additional 20,000 acre-feet of recycled water.

“We would need to find a way to get water for the second phase,” said Robb Whitaker, general manager for the Water Replenishment District.

As it stands, “we may never get to phase two,” Whitaker said.

But Whitaker is confident the project can get the wastewater it needs for phase one of the project.

He also argues recycling water to drinking water standards can be more beneficial than recycling it only for irrigational purposes.

The GRIP project would purify water through reverse osmosis and then use it to replenish dwindling groundwater supplies.

“We would directly offset half our demand for imported water,” Whitaker said.

But Aguilar questions whether the San Gabriel Valley is ready for a project that would ultimately result in people consuming recycled water, even if a similar program has found great success in Orange County.

“Yes, it worked there, but educating the public took a tremendous amount of money, a lot of effort, and a lot of time. This area is much harder to reach – it’s diverse, it has a large number of cities, education levels among some residents are low,” Aguilar said.