Breaking barriers: How California tackled its water challenges to become a global leader

California’s Orange County Water District took ‘reuse and reduce’ to a whole new level with its ground-breaking work in recycling used water. Its general manager Michael R. Markus shares his insights on the organisation’s decades-long journey in protecting the region’s water basin and ensuring water security for millions, efforts that helped it win the 2014 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

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Walkway and view of the Pacifc Ocean at Heisler Park, in Laguna Beach, part of Orange County in California. The Orange County Water DIstrict has had to resort to innovative methods to manage the region's water resources, which serve about 2.4 million people. Image: Shutterstock

It was a concept that was perhaps a little difficult to stomach when it was first introduced in the 1970s in California, United States. But the thought of recycling used water into a viable source of drinking water soon grew on both politicians and citizens, when drought-stricken California began to realise that this “toilet-to-tap” solution could solve their water woes.

California has long been dogged by water challenges, forcing the state to impose rationing on businesses and home-owners to forgo non-necessities such as pools and watering their lawns. Since the 1930s, the state has had to experiment with ingenious ways of managing water, says Michael R. Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District in a recent interview with Eco-Business.

From purifying used water and reusing it – an “unthinkable” idea in the 1960s – to pumping the treated water to recharge the water basin (coined the Groundwater Replenishment System), the District has broken new ground with many ‘firsts’ since it was established in 1933.

Now, as the current Californian drought enters its fourth year, water recycling has become even more topical and relevant.

It is estimated that in the next 20 years, the population of Orange County will increase from 2.4 million to three million people. And as climate change causes even more severe droughts in many parts of the world, careful water management will become an absolute necessity.

The idea of treating wastewater and pumping the purified water back into the water basin for reuse originated as early as in the 1960s, when California - or more specifically Orange County - struggled with a water source that was drying up, Markus says.

 At that time, treated wastewater was discharged into the Pacific Ocean because reusing it was “unthinkable”.

A largely man-made problem, the drying up of the water basin really began in the 1930s, when close to 90 per cent of California’s economy was based on agriculture, Markus explains.

“We grew orange trees – that was how we got our name,” says the 60-year-old, who has worked at the District for 27 years.  “And people were fighting over water. We had the different farmers and different interests such as factories trying to divert water off the river and thought they had the right to do so, so they just pumped as much as they wanted.”

As a result, the groundwater basin was almost depleted by the 1960s.

This affected not only agriculture but also daily life as drinking water in the basin, provided by wells right along the coast near the Pacific Ocean, was slowly getting contaminated by seawater. This is a common problem associated with the over-pumping of any water basin.

In Orange County, the groundwater basin was particularly important because it provided about 70 per cent of the water for the 1.2 million people living in the county at that time.

Markus, a civil engineer by training was hired in 1988 as the District’s construction manager.  He had started his career at a general contractor, working on large water treatment projects.

“At the time, the District was looking to hire a construction manager and the types of projects they were looking at were of interest to me and very similar to my experience,” he recalls. “I never really imagined that I would be involved in a project like the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) or that I would ever become the general manager.

When the water near the offices became undrinkable in the early 1960s, the District realised that saltwater intrusion was a big problem.

“Our office is about 7 kilometres from the ocean,” Markus explains. “There used to be wells maybe 1 kilometre from the ocean and eventually the saltwater came into those wells so we couldn’t use them anymore.”

“Then we noticed that the wells that were 2 kilometers inland became contaminated, so we thought, ok we have a problem. The seawater is coming inland and if we don’t do something about it, it’s going to contaminate the entire groundwater basin.”

The engineering team got cracking to find a solution to their water woes.  It was a mission that would take them more than 10 years to complete and eventually expanded into a programme that would garner the organisation accolades around the world. 

Making history: Water Factory 21 

The District was set up by the state government in 1933 to be the groundwater managers of California’s Orange County, home to 34 cities and attractions like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, a 160-acre theme park. Its main task was to protect Southern California’s greatest water supplies: the 154-kilometre-long Santa Ana River and the Orange County Groundwater Basin.

When the basin started drying up in the 1960s, the first thing that the engineers at the District needed to do was to find new sources of clean, drinking water for the 1.2 million people in the areas it served.

For this, the District piloted Water Factory 21, named after the latest, 21st century technology they were experimenting with: reverse osmosis. Although treatment techniques such as aeration, flocculation, and granular activated carbon adsorption existed at the time, they were either under-used by water systems or ineffective at removing some contaminants.

Reverse osmosis was being tested extensively by researchers globally as a more energy efficient and effective way of treating water.

When it opened in 1978, Water Factory 21 became the first facility in the world to demonstrate that drinking water can be consistently produced from treating sewage.

This is achieved through an advanced water purification system that uses reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon.

Eventually, in the early 1990s, the engineers began experimenting with microfiltration, which had traditionally been used in the food and industrial sectors. Microfiltration not only eliminated the need for monthly cleaning, it also reduced the number of steps in the water purification process. Less physical space was needed for the plant to treat the same amount of water.

This allowed the District to make better use of its land and increase the overall production on the site. From 15 million gallons per day, the Water Factory expanded to its current capacity of 100 million gallons per day.

The entire Water Factory 21 process took close to 15 years from conception to implementation, involving the entire District staff of 50 people and half a dozen more external consultants.

“It was more a painstakingly long process of taking little steps rather than a eureka moment,” Markus says. “Each new step was built upon previous research.” 

Thanks to the work of Orange County Water District, a three-stage advanced treatment process of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet/hydrogen peroxide has since been established as the standard for potable water reuse in the industry globally.

With Water Factory 21, the District established itself as the pioneer in water reuse and groundwater management beginning in the 1970s. With this achievement under its belt, it then prepared to launch its most ambitious project: The Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS).

Keeping the saltwater out 

It had never been done before: injecting treated wastewater from households into the water basin to ‘recharge’ aquifers.

This project, which began producing water in January 2008, provides a new source of high-quality water to the water basin all year round.

“That had never been done at that point, anywhere on the planet. So it was a very innovative idea,” Markus says. Before this, the unused treated water had been discharged to the ocean by the Orange County Sanitation Agency. This was, according to Markus, “the done thing”.

“Instead of discharging into the ocean, we inject the water into a series of wells nearby,” he says. “And this pushed back the seawater and kept it close to the coast.”

The Groundwater Replenishment System project included a US$35 million design effort and the construction of seven individual pipe and treatment projects worth US$400 million, starting from April 2002 when the first contract was awarded.

The largest of the projects was the US$300 million advanced water purification facility that could treat 70 million gallons per day, enough to meet the needs of 600,000 people.

The programme not only protected the water basin, it ensured that the county had a more reliable supply of water all year round and reduced its reliance on imported sources, Markus says.

The project eventually won numerous awards for the District including the 2008 Stockholm Industry Water Award, 2009 ASCE Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award, 2014 U.S. Water Prize and the 2014 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is the highlight of the biennial Singapore International Water Week – a conference that gathers stakeholders in the global water industry.

Cathy Green, vice president, Orange County Water District Board of Directors, receiving the 2014 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize from Dr Tony Tan, chair of The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Council.  Image: Singapore International Water Week.

The Prize recognizes outstanding contributions towards solving global water problems by either applying innovative technologies or implementing policies and programmes that benefit humanity.

“It took a long time to develop these projects and to get the regulatory approval,” Markus says. “We had to convince California’s department of health that what we were doing was going to be safe and we will protect our water quality.”

Markus says that this is increasingly important in the state, which is currently in its fourth year of drought, and where sources of imported water for recharge such as the Colorado River – 400 kilometres away – are becoming more expensive.

The price of imported water has tripled over the last decade, making the District’s treated groundwater about a third of that cost, Markus says.

California’s drought and engaging the public 

Today, the District continues to ensure a reliable supply of high quality water for 2.4 million residents in north and central Orange County.

Because of the success of the GWRS and the continuing drought in California, more regions including San Diego County and Los Angeles County are planning similar large water recycling facilities, Markus says.

Apart from being leaders in water technology, the District has also gained recognition for its public outreach efforts.

“In the beginning we were quite concerned about public perception, about people not wanting to drink the water because of the source of the water,” Markus says. “It was about being open and transparent. We told them why we need to do it, and how we were going to do it.”

The aggressive outreach campaign to garner public acceptance for GWRS started several years before the project began in 2008. From 1999 to 2007, more than 1,200 presentations about the science behind the system were given to local, state and federal policymakers, business and civic leaders, health experts, environmental advocates, academia and the general public.

“What made our outreach successful was that it began at the planning stages of the project,” Markus explains. “We did polling and focus groups to find out what concerns the public had about the project and then developed our messaging based on those results.”

“I think another major factor is that we had District staff give the presentations rather than relying on consultants.  This showed the community that we understood what we were proposing and helped gain public confidence,” he adds.

The public outreach strategies have since been replicated in countries such as Australia and Singapore, and in the states of Colorado and Texas to achieve water sustainability through water reuse, benefitting millions in the process.

Advancing the cause

Following its Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize win, the District is putting the SG$300,000 prize money from the prize to good use, setting up a post-doctoral fellowship for a scientist to conduct research into water contaminants so that the district can take its work a step further.

And its work continues today. At the end of last year, Markus oversaw the completion of the expansion of the Groundwater Replenishment System. This brought the total production capacity of the system to 100 million gallons of high-quality water, which is enough to serve 850,000 people annually.

After 27 years at the District, Markus continues to love his work, describing his colleagues – the organisation’s biggest strength – as “tremendously dedicated”.

“I think I’ve stayed at the OCWD for 28 years because of the wide variety of issues that we deal with and the challenges of trying to help maintain a sustainable water supply for Orange County,” he says.

His decades of experience in water management has convinced him of the importance of having a good “water ethic” – being responsible for the resources that we have – and ensuring that technology is transferred to those who need it the most.

“We need to do a better job at using the water we have,” he explains. “The challenge is global too. The developing counties don’t have the basic water or wastewater treatment. I think that’s where a lot of focus should be.” 

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