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Haefele: LA mayor candidates need to reconsider wastewater recycling

Construction of the Owens Valley Aqueduct. A horse-drawn carriage poses in one of the large pipes used in the construction of the aqueduct.
Construction of the Owens Valley Aqueduct. A horse-drawn carriage poses in one of the large pipes used in the construction of the aqueduct.
LA Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

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Los Angeles Mayor race 2013There’s a big question both Los Angeles mayoral candidates have been ignoring: the city’s shrinking water resources. It’s the hippopotamus in the campaign living room.

L.A.’s population is expanding, but L.A.’s prime water sources, the Colorado River and the Owens Valley, are draining away. You’d think it’d be the first priority in City Hall, but if Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti have mentioned it, I missed it.  

Just a dozen years ago, the city’s Department of Water and Power and its public works department had a solution, based on a simple fact. Every day, the city of L.A. imports about 500-million gallons of water from its faraway sources in the Sierras and the Rockies. But then it dumps 400-million gallons of wastewater into the ocean every day. It stands to reason that if a significant amount of this water could be reused locally, we wouldn’t be so dependent on sources hundreds of miles away.

This is anything but a new idea. A 1931 L.A. Times article reported that even then, DWP’s top brass were experimenting with infusing 70,000 gallons of highly filtered and chlorinated sewer water into the subsoil of Griffith Park. The recycled water could then be accessed by wells and pumped into the city’s pipes. The Times story said the DWP believed “throwing away dirty water is as stupidly wasteful as the throwing away of dirty shirts.” 

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By about 2000, the same basic DWP plan had advanced to the point where it was about to make a substantial difference in the city’s water supply.

But then came the 2001 mayoral election, when then-Councilman Joel Wachs decided to make the recycling program, for which he had voted, a negative issue in his doomed campaign. He called recycling “toilet to tap,” and bussed in elderly nay-sayers from as far away as San Diego to testify against it. Wachs came in fourth in the primary, but he trounced the city’s best hope for an unrestricted water supply. Under winning Mayor Jim Hahn and his two-term successor, Antonio Villaraigosa, wastewater recycling was zombified.

The DWP’s new wastewater to groundwater system ran just 18 months, but spent millions on master plans and promised that more than a third of L.A.’s wastewater would be recycled in the near future. Los Angeles is still only recycling 1 percent of its wastewater — the same as 26 years ago.

Meanwhile, other municipalities are moving fast. Orange County now recycles up to half of its daily 200 million gallons of wastewater. Even the little Las Virgines District that serves Calabasas and Agoura is recycling 20 percent of its wastewater.  One local water district actually buys 6 percent of LA’s wastewater, recycles it and sells it at a good profit to 17 southern L.A. County cities and unincorporated regions — none of them in L.A.

Why is L.A., with recycling deep in its DNA, falling so far behind? The “toilet to tap label” struck a chord, highlighting what they call the “yuck factor.” But we are already drinking recycled wastewater. There are at least seven sewer plants upstream on the Colorado River, for instance. And this never became enough of an issue to stop widespread recycling in conservative Orange County.

Bahman Sheikh, a water reuse expert involved in the L.A. recycling effort, says the problem is the city lacks the leadership it had under Mayor Tom Bradley and his then Public Works chief Felicia Marcus. He says “Water reuse is in our future. ... It cannot be avoided, it can only be delayed. The city is good at that.”

So, Wendy or Eric, will you stand up for L.A.’s water supply future? Don’t raise your hands all at once.