Getting past wastewater’s ‘gak factor’ to save our most precious resource

Illustration of water tank cycling from dirty to clean
Lily Callender/Staff

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is confronting the United States’ biggest challenge in recycling municipal wastewater: the “gak” factor. It takes a lot for some people to understand the idea that recycling wastewater really does eliminate the “waste” in the water before it is ready to be reused. But, if successful, he will have demonstrated how a city can recover and reuse hundreds of millions of gallons of precious water.

At a news conference Feb. 21, 2019, the mayor announced a deadline of 2035 for securing his goal, and there is already technology in use that would allow the city to achieve that objective.

At West Basin Municipal Water District, there is state-of-the-art technology to purify wastewater for nonpotable needs, including outdoor irrigation, industrial use, groundwater reinjection and much more. In fact, Mattel announced a few years ago the completion of a joint project to enable the exclusive use of recycled water for irrigation purposes at its El Segundo, California corporate campus. By using West Basin’s locally produced recycled water for irrigation, Mattel and West Basin began immediately helping to save nearly 2 million gallons of drinking water per year.

This allows the district to help conserve the precious drinking water supply of nearly 1 million residents in the neighboring 17 cities and unincorporated communities. Moreover, by sourcing about 40 million gallons of wastewater every day from the city’s Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant — the largest wastewater treatment plant west of the Mississippi River — we also reduce Los Angeles’ wastewater burden and improve the environmental health of Santa Monica Bay.

There is evidence to suggest that the city is prepared to accept the goals of the mayor’s recycled wastewater deadline. Thanks to civic engagement and conservation efforts, the residents of  Los Angeles are sending nearly 100 million gallons less wastewater to the Hyperion plant than they did 25 years ago.

Collectively, we are moving forward in our regional efforts to think smarter about water on multiple fronts. Garcetti strongly advocated on behalf of Measure W, a local measure approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2018 that will raise an estimated $300 million per year to fund infrastructure projects and programs designed to capture, treat and recycle stormwater.

Still, more needs to be done. To ensure that we have enough water to meet our present and future needs, while also ensuring environmental quality and health, we must further reduce our water consumption habits, while expanding the use of recycled water across our region.

In partnership with the city of Los Angeles, West Basin’s Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility produces five unique, “fit for purpose” water qualities specifically designed to serve the region. This, in turn, reduces wastewater discharge into the ocean; lowers our dependence on imported water from hundreds of miles away; and insulates key industries from potential water shortages, which also protects our massive regional economy.

But it remains the “gak” challenge of recycling wastewater that needs to be addressed with equal skill. Seriously, how many people really want to think about parks and other public spaces being irrigated by what was once flushed down the toilet. It is the public education and outreach that plays a critical role in meeting the water supply needs of tomorrow. Agencies across the state, including the city of Los Angeles and West Basin, have intensified community outreach and education programs to meet the ever-increasing demand of the public, while educating our residents about the value of water. Accordingly, West Basin recently celebrated the grand reopening of its Water Education Center in El Segundo that is anticipated to welcome more than 20,000 visitors annually, as we showcase the ingenuity and possibilities of recycled water.

As Garcetti, the city of Los Angeles and the residents of West Basin can attest, our water needs and the way we look at water are at an inflection point — and there is no turning back. Now is the time for bold leadership and lofty goals that set a clear vision and drive innovation. “Gak,” indeed. Let’s do this.

Scott Houston was elected to the West Basin Municipal Water District’s Board of Directors in November 2014 and serves as President of the Board; Houston is currently Chair of West Basin’s Public Information and Education Committee, as well as a member of its Engineering and Operations Committee.