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Sep-15-2012 19:49printcomments

Reclaimed, Reused and Recovered Water In South OC

“You can never step in the same water twice for new water is always flowing upon you.” Heraclitus of Ephesus circa 500 B.C.

Things that make you go
Things that make you go "Hmmmmmmm"

(LAGUNA BEACH, CA) - If you’ve ever seen that sculpture by Rodin, titled “Le Ponseur” (The Thinker) then you’re familiar with the strong depiction of a man posed in deep metaphysical contemplation….or a profoundly depressed guy who just got dumped by his S.O. That statue in conjunction with the aforementioned quote in fact typifies a modern contradiction: Now you CAN step in the same water twice, maybe shower in it, drink it or water your garden with it twice. Those additional drips will cost you in the long run when you live in a Cadillac Desert.

Your golf course, park, school or common HOA open space might be receiving slurpy seconds as well. In fact, though in a spiral of diminishing return, it might be getting reused or re-distributed 3 times in your locale. Hey, in So Cal  anything’s possible?

Pre-Socratic Heraclitus alluded to change as being the one constant we can ever know:“There is nothing permanent except change.” Indeed, a contemporary of his and a man he probably never even heard of, Siddhartha Gotama, the famous Shakyamuni  (Awakened One) Buddha, said essentially same thing. 

When will golf be invented?

The humble purpose of this column is to awaken, enlighten my readers a bit more about the pursuit, the various evolving (changing) strategies, fiscal and physical challenges, some controversies and inhibitions surrounding both drinking and landscape (Title 22) purple water in my vicinity. I always try to teach by example, and we’re as thirsty as any other Mediterranean climate, urbanized portion of Southern California. So why not use Mr. Roger’s neighborhood for our discussion?

Previously, in my 3 part series on NIMBYS and their progeny, I briefly mentioned the revolutionary “Toilet-to-Tap” logistics that the Orange County Water District (OCWD) has implemented. "T2T" by the way was some bozo inflammatory politician's way to unjustly poo-poo the OCWD logistics, bring fear and distrust of government (instead of proven science) into the equation---creating controversy, and oh, did I mention, get a candidate against reclaimed elected? Not sure how severely dehydrated, dead voting blocks work at the polls.

This innovative agency should be proud and praised, it is on the cutting-edge by reclaiming wastewater north of us, within the Region 8 Cal/EPA increasingly drought-prone domain. So importing 100% of your water, some say stealing it from rivers and No Cal is more righteous?

If you didn't know it, there are septic systems that are legally mandated distances away from wells, streams and lakes that show no incursions of human pathogens or pollutants. As long as the ground is of acceptable density and consolidation, soil can be an incredible cleansing device. Once again, maybe we all need to stop using T2T and thus stop propagating the knee-jerk reaction it provokes. When you're like Laguna Beach, importing 100% of your water, the "Yuck" response to recycled is plain stupid. I personally vow to never use this pejorative sobriquet again.

South OC (under Region 9 Cal/EPA jurisdiction) usually refers to them as the “Flatlanders” due to their relatively level terrain; and not diminutively or in a denigrating fashion, but as compared to our dominantly rolling hills, steep canyons and deeper arroyos.

In an assertive, creative and almost futuristic way they’ve availed themselves not only of existing wastewater but also infrastructural systems, plus existing land easements and setbacks. They’ve run a pipeline along the Santa Ana River and percolate water into the soil from their Ground Water Replenishment System (GWRS) I noted before.


OC Sanitation District (OCSD) and OCWD are partners in the GWRS, and are co-located, some of the major facilities and offices next door to one another.  The GWRS acts as OCSD’s second outfall discharge system permitted by Cal/EPA (Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board).

Instead of sending 100 million gallons per day (mgd) of advanced, tertiary effluent discharges to the sea, essentially“wasting” wastewater, it is instead sent to OCWD who moves and injects for advanced water treatment at the GWRS. The water is drinking water but because of state and federal regulations, OCWD is required to percolate the GWRS water into the upstream aquifer where it must remain a minimum of six months before being pumped out by a municipal system.

Amazingly, this morning (Thursday, September 13, 2012) I received an email from a respected water district employee that had read my NIMBY series online. I’m ¼ NA and a Marine, never even knew that I was being tracked or trailed. I’ve been told that a free 8-hour tour of the GWRS facilities can be booked. Guess I’ll take a ticket, have a chance to do a few shots from their taps.

I hope they throw in breakfast and lunch, you know feed a starving advocate. Some disgusted zanies refer to the water as “poo-shooters,”but I’ll try to remain objective and give my readers an update later, you know, the uh, you know, "straight poop"?

Here in South OC, Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), in a similar aggressive collaboration with the umbrella joint powers authority known as the South OC Wastewater Authority (SOCWA), has been performing it’s own limited version. Unfortunately, critical parameters abound here that OCWD didn’t have before them---Not that their challenging projects were easy or continue to be any easier.

SMWD also transfers or sells it's excesses to adjacent water districts when available, and the others reciprocate.  Everyone saves money in the long run. My deeper research revealed there's actually a lot of collaborating agreements and synergistic strategies not known by the common public.

I got a hold of a map showing the basic Chinese Fire Drill that SMWD and other South OC water/sans perform 24/7/365. Apologies to Neil Young, but it's water, not rust that never sleeps!  Sitting at a high resolution computer screen, it's eyestrain, headache and a trip to the chiropractor when trying to follow the complex exchanges and transfers, mgd of both landscape and potable being moved based on fluctuating needs. Up, down, over under sideways 'round.

SMWD’s  Upper Chiquita Reservoir (below) became operational in October of 2011. The photograph at their website shows the potable water reservoir in the forefront and the Saddleback Mountains in the background. Go to their website and move your browser for the totally cool, full panoramic view effect that helps comprehension. I've been there, it's too vast in size for a snapshot:


Here in South OC are a few dissimilarities that can’t be reversed, and our entrance banner should read: “Location, Location, Location!”

That’s the mantra of real estate, and it is especially true for water. Whether it’s reclaiming wastewater for irrigation or for potable, whether it’s pumping groundwater aquifers out for treatment and removal of non-compliant contaminants, from wells, or from excessive, unnatural surface flows (urban runoff) we’ve got an entirely different set of inherent restrictions. And our native water is loaded with difficult to remove or reduce naturally existent salt, iron, manganese etc.

Infrastructural, Biological, Regulatory and Physical Limitations

The initial round of treatment installations and piping infrastructure systems positioned within our region decades ago are not co-located like OCWD and OCSD. They’re really spread out. SMWD, the largest and arguably the most progressive, services 97 sq. miles of the area. They’ve taken a lot of heat from basically ignorant, unknowledgeable northern OC carpetbaggers (see my BANANA column) for the sheer glamour of confrontation and media spotlight. Liberal media especially smell conflict and blood, and if it bleeds it leads.

One northern OC female activist who keeps butting into the water challenges we wrestle with in South OC, a former politician and attorney no less, I’ve crowned “The Red Queen” because with her and us it’s “First the punishment, then the trial.” Mix one part precipitous paranoid, one part aging media spotlight seeker, one part bogus eco-maven and VOILA! A tragically and fatally flawed star is born.

We were built out much later than the north, 9 of our 12 cities were only incorporated (under state LAFCO guidelines) within the last 25 years. Mike Davis, the great historian and urban commentator (City of QuartzEcology of Fear) might have been right: We were a result, a function of white flight, of a middle class massive migration.

Historian & futurist Mike Davis

First they moved to northern OC from LA, then fled to the south, ended scrunched up against private land’s end: The beaches and Camp Pendleton (San Diego County). Middle and upper class people who also wanted more of an open space orientated lifestyle. We carved out bigger parcels, bigger yard setbacks, estates, and really more space between the subdivisions themselves than northern OC.

Davis has a point regarding the WASP exodus: The 2011 US Census claimed that at least 70% of South OC residents identified themselves as white.

Davis believes that gated communities were invented here in the land down under. Though lower in population totals AND density, our demographic, our facilities are spread out over several hundred square miles of rural topography, so there’s a lot of complex moving blocks in the water Rubik’s Cube puzzle.

Although I don’t agree with everything he’s written, Davis is a humorous and amusingly controversial contemporary of mine, also a So Cal native from the same baby boomer year: 1946. Born in Fontana, raised in El Cajon. So he’s seen too much due to growing up and living in some similarly despairing places as myself. ‘Nuff said.

Second, the 3 oldest cities (San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach) have really antiquated waste and storm water (MS4) drainage systems. Drive through them, there was zero master planning, streets don’t align, basically pell-mell layouts that often confuse even natives. I live off a small alley in South Laguna, some people who grew up here don’t even know of it!

One master planned city, Aliso Viejo, was built and created entirely within the last 15-odd years. Several other large ones like Ladera, Talega and the just breaking ground Rancho Mission Viejo have been able to plan for recycled distribution.

Thus most of South OC predominantly has sewer and drinking water delivery systems as those installed by developers.  Space was never set aside for the size of increasingly complex treatment plants nor for above ground reservoirs. The previous infrastructural oversight agency, plus the land use tract map approval process agency, was stamped (stampeded?) by the County of Orange going back into the 1960s. Our existing treatment plants are getting close to their full capacity. Something has to give.

As a rough guess, at least 90% or more of these South OC neighborhoods don’t have existing, parallel delivery potential regarding recycled irrigation (Title 22) water. The incredible burden then is upon agencies like SMWD and SOCWA to find very crafty ways of not only physically, but in a fiscally responsible way for their ratepayers, to perform newer, necessary capital improvement projects, upgrade, operate, retrofit and maintained facilities. On top of that, though they have more customers, they must develop better services within constrained, fixed and in some divisions shrinking budgets.

SMWD’s Upper Oso Reservoir, one of the largest recycled water reservoirs in Orange County, has been in operation since 1979.  It is located near the 241 Toll Road in the cities of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita.  Source:

As for an overwhelming majority of the main arterial roads and lateral streets, buried either directly under or adjacent to them, these in-and-out (water/san) systems hide from sight but not mischievous vandalism or unavoidable failures due to aging. They were already fixed, in place when reclaimed and recycled began its necessitated ascent.

In South Laguna Beach, only a small zone in proximity to a new 5 star hotel built in 2000-2002, The Montage Resort & Spa, availed itself well. We have a SOCWA operated coastal treatment plant nearby, and since it required conversion from a former trailer park, everything got torn up to start anew.

Promo photo: Montage Resort & Spa in South Laguna Beach

In order to retrofit, to create a recycled system assuring delivery to every home and business in South OC, it would necessitate tearing up and resurfacing billions of dollars in pavement. No one’s even bothered funding a study to my knowledge, but other logistics and impacts (traffic gridlock, relocation of other utilities, dislocation of residents, commuter disruption, air pollution from heavy machinery, noise, etc.) would never happen anyway, no one would fund it or take it on via a massive self-imposed bond or assessment. Significant rain on torn up sites would place even more toxic pollutants than presently slough off into our streams, lakes and ocean. Won’t happen. Not in this economic climate.

Everybody resents Obama Recovery and Reinvestment money, but this would be a candidate if not for the mind-boggling, outright impossible dynamics.

Third, bless us, we’ve got one other advantage over northern OC: We’ve still got threatened and endangered species in plentitude. They’ve pretty much paved over the dominant portion of their high value habitat, but realistically those types of native flora and fauna species lived and thrived down here as a direct function of our historically remote and unique terrain.

Unfortunately, that means that any draining, any drafting and impounding of surface or subterranean water, by diversion or by wells, can jeopardize the habitat of those same highly protected species. Lowering groundwater can create deserts where former moisture-laden streambed soil existed. Google “Effluent-Dependent Waterways” or“Effluent-Dependent Riparian Ecosystems” and there’s a plethora of data promulgated by EPA, university study groups and tons of litigation addressing this controversial topic.

Briefly, we’ve discharged polluted surface runoff (effluent) in over-abundance, beyond historical volumes, so we humans are responsible for altering the drainage patterns, velocities, amounts and destinations. We’ve played God and created habitat that wasn’t there before or in such density, so are we going to kill it too by dehydration, draining everything even drier? South OC is not only a poster child for toxic soup, but we’re the“Home of the Effluent” not just “affluent.”

Addressed many times in very expensive environmental impact reports (EIRs), our water/san districts are hobbled, many times enjoined and no mitigations can significantly offset the adverse impacts.

The surface topography and subterranean (hydrogeology) also work against us. Steep terrain and lots of impervious surfaces drain faster. This does recharge our streams, our few wells in the San Juan Creek watershed and its aquifers. Smaller watersheds like Laguna Creek Canyon, Aliso Creek and San Clemente have little if any subterranean capacity basins or open space reservoirs, virtually no wells. They’re not candidates for ground reinjection (recharging) or wetlands either, the last one mainly due to overdevelopment.

The San Juan Creek Basin (SJB) has been estimated to have about 90,000 acre feet (af) of sub-surface (aquifer) capacity. It's accepted that 1 acre foot is enough to sustain 3+ residences for a year = enough for almost 300,000 homes. I should add that the water isn't pristine, it has concentrations of highly regulated and monitored contaminants, although most are of of natural origins.

Between prudent government capping of entitlements and rights, inhibiting fiscal and physical limitations, only about 1/3 in any given year (afy) will ever be taken. And it's not tap or lawn ready ur-water. Roughly enough for 300,000 persons per year, except hold the phone: According to the US Census of 2011, about 900,000 people reside in South OC. Do the math.

Almost 45% of the SJB aquifers retaining water (like a subterranean bathtub) are in the lower 1/3 of the San Juan Basin (approximately 40,000 af). This area is better-suited because it's basically a floodplain, the termination of multiple drainages. The natural hydrology carries the water on its march to seek the down gradient sea level, to flow because of the inevitable forces of gravity. 

rth issue: Increasingly prescriptive regulatory oversight. Both US and Cal/EPA continue the inevitable mandated march, the policies ratcheting down to reverse admitted and historical degradation of water. This includes both surface and subterranean extractions and processes, guidelines and permits that allow water/san districts, not to mention private corporations plus County and municipal copermittees, to remain open for business without substantial fines for violations.

100% Compliance As A Rubik's Cube

Thus the regulations are getting stricter and more expensive to comply with, yet the money isn’t there to accomplish everything required. This takes up a lot of staff time, internal and interminable public agency meetings---plus tons of dead trees via reams of paper. I’ve found most of the water/san folks are working longer hours, uncompensated ones I should add. I get emails at 7-8 pm from their offices, long after I should.

The dominant impact at many hearings for massive projects: Glazed-over and darting, petite mal seizure eyes that avoid direct contact. You’d get a trifle burnt out too if you’re a sole breadwinner today and if your career was on the line. There are out-of-work capable people standing in long lines with hefty degrees waiting to replace you for half of the salary.

Readers might want to check out how a major OC public relations professional Laer Pearce humorously sees the intricate, oftentimes illogical maze of confusing goals and strategies here:  “Crazifornia: Tales From The Tarnished State”

For me, this economy is the new unpredictable reality and may never go back.  Efficiency and accountability are always important, but today’s compliance workplace has become threatening, fearful and anxious. I’ve got most of those water-related regulatory manuals over my desk on a shelf and my library is about 3 feet long. I have no idea how much longer a shelf (or shelves) my water/san district staff counterparts must have.

So the Rubik’s Cube metaphor I’ve invoked applies: Multiple requirements for compliance coming from different angles, many over-lapping, some iterative (redundant), some not. Many (in my brain) seem contradictory or at least don’t quite align regarding goals and objectives. Congrats, welcome to Water Wonderland. 

For an autodidact (self-taught, OJT) like myself, with permits being amended or updated continuously by law, frankly I sometimes melt down in frustration. My brain freezes. Once in a while, state or federal protection agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Forest Service, NOAA, Cal Fish & Game or US Fish & Wildlife issue some new rules or promulgate edicts. Often these changes come from NGO litigious challenges.

One humungous overlay after another creating a pile of superimposed compliance algorithms that confound veterans and newbies alike. Yeah, I get paid and so do the agency employees, but who can afford the extra money for the shrink that insurance won’t cover or sympathize with the personal meltdown, the irritation you exhibit before your family and friends when you come home?

There’s also an increasingly tremendous amount of pressure being exerted upon the staffs of regulatory agencies. Budget cuts equal less staff time. F + I = C (Fewer personnel + Increasingly complex and demanding prescriptions==Inevitable Chaos).

Temper fuses are getter shorter, and NGO protectionists rightfully or not increase the friction heat. A triage of sorts is taking place, the regulatory staff are being forced to pick and choose out of the high profile enforcement complaints where they can be most effective. On the compliance side, project proponents chose not the best the alternatives but ones that require the fewest hurdles with one eye out for protracted (expensive) lawsuits.

Reversing environmental degradation, whether air, soil or water, was federally legislated 40-some years ago. This over-riding improvement concept wasn’t supposed to be mean, punish unjustly or pit people just doing their jobs against one another. Now it’s “Fear and Loathing” personified.  There’s little or no room for human error or adaptive management, little conflict resolution, just internecine conflict where collaboration should rule the day. Collectively, solutions emerge. Separately, no much gets accomplished.

If you as a reader take nothing else away from this piece, consider this: Between regulatory compliance (the proverbial rock) and eco-protection confrontation (the hard place), a virtual double-whammy minefield and shooting gallery for those third entities wishing to provide you with safe and healthy water in some form is taking place. They’re the 3rd side of the regulatory Bermuda Triangle.

The federal Clean Water Act, and California’s Porter-Cologne Act were always intended to be living documents, evolving works in progress. Those personnel getting ground beneath the wheels of the machine the fracas has produced (rock & hard place) doesn’t honor the old adage “Hard on issues, soft on people.”

I was born on the NGO activist side of this 3-cornered catch, trinomial equation. So I get the “Barbarians at the gate, put ‘em under siege and make them accountable”mentality. Where I part company with other self-crowned NGO leadership is embedded in this column.

In one corner, you have regulatory staff in diminishing numbers hunkered down in their virtual bunkers, combat helmets on, awaiting incoming salvos from the $450 per hour legal representatives billing NGOs. Or subpoenas from $450 an hour attorneys representing violators. The state or feds have staff attorneys with sizable incomes and benefits, not sure what the total $$$ package is there. I don’t begrudge them their cut, it just vexes me. Take your pick, you pays your taxpayer money and takes your chances. Laer Pearce might agree with one of music heroes:

Zappa Dappa Do

The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.”

— Frank Zappa

In another corner, you have the staff of public agencies like the cities, or the water/san district agencies. Their staff personnel are buried under mounds of compliance documents, required, almost coerced into explaining, justifying to their elected or appointed superiors the increasing demands on their time (meaning money and undivided attention). No matter how fast they run to become compliant, like hamsters on their treadmills, they are very busy going nowhere.

Like Lucille Ball and Ethel in that infamous chocolate candy box assembly line episode of“I Love Lucy,” they’ll never catch up---The regulatory decrees, edicts and promulgations, the NGO lawyers won’t let them. So they have to hire $450 per hour attorneys to defend themselves.

That's not what EPA told me!

In the last corner, you have legal challenges from NGOs who, whattayaknow, whattyasay, bill at $450 per hour. Yeah, sure, they don’t get paid that by the NGO, yet they claim before judges that they deserve $450/hour…….more like 1/3 to the rookies as usually they’re using interns or $50/hour paralegals like disposable rubbers. In the case of water-related issues, the ratepayers or taxpayers are the losers. Primo case in point: The Pacific Grove desalination near Monterey, behold the pillage, the pilfering and collateral damage of California’s“INTERVENORY COMPENSATION”:

Many resent the fact that we also, in a sense, are paying for the same water 2, 3 or 4 times. The same water delivery agency that bills you is recovering or capturing, eventually filtering and cleansing that water you’ve excessively exported. Then they sell it back to you in a virtual perpetual motion machine.

Weird, but no one blames Waste Management or other private corporations for profiting off of wasted or abandoned goods. Being public agencies under scrutiny the water/san folks must not only be openly transparent but also justify their budgets, their costs and expenditures at hearings before ratepayers. In the case of recycled or reclaimed, they’re being intelligently, responsibly prudent but still get pilloried.

I’ve learned along the way that self-described saviors, those high profile watchdog activists that demonize the water world tribe, the delivery and wastewater industry, are wrong lots of the time. They like to complain and get their faces and names in media outlets but seldom do their technical homework or take the time to understand the bureaucratic environs.

Eco-protectionists need to recalibrate. Water/san employees aren’t evil, and they’re not your enemies. They’ve been warning you for years. It’s not their fault that your fellow residents weren’t responsible and didn’t attend publicly noticed meetings to better educate themselves about the poorly understood water world. They haven’t been clandestine; the general population has been lazy.

My experience has been that there is no such thing as the "Environmental Community" anyway, that's a myth.... there's just a hodge-podge of agendas. Many times they're even selfishly competitive or in conflict. They're scratching after shrinking donations in a stressed economy. Non-profits have grown exponentially in numbers, but there's less money available. So why not litigate, look for a deep pocket?

One of the most common beefs from them all is the huge energy demands to operate water/san district facilities. Well, as I pointed out in my BANDANA column, there are emerging, cutting edge solar corporations with some pretty spiffy new installations.

Ones that not only can run a plant autonomously, off the grid, but also provide for the energy demands of their locale. And enviros should be the last to whine when those panels or mirrors start flowering on commercial building roofs. Ironically, lots of heat is also required for many treatment systems like desalination, thus we get an energy double-dip from solar. Look for electricity costs to be lowered via retrofitting or at new facilities.

Overdevelopment and our own wasteful habits got us here because of both excessive interior wastewater usage and wasted exterior over-watering. Activists who literally earn a living off of the paranoia and inherent distrust of government are often part of the obstacles or impediments to resolving endless disputes.

Yes, now it’s going to cost us more: DUH. We’re the main causal factor, so stop shooting the messengers. It’s like blaming the trash man for your over-flowing garbage cans. He didn’t create the problem, he’s trying to help you solve it. Like Walt Kelly’s cartoon figure Pogo said: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.”

FYI: If a project near you has some interesting enviro-aspect(s) that you think is/are worthy of coverage and our readers attention, feel free to contact me with a very brief synopsis. Water-related “Blue Interventions” are my specialty!


Launched in 2010, Odd Man Out is the creation of Roger Bütow and his OMO columns are written exclusively for Salem-News-com. Born and raised in the LA Harbor area, son of a German immigrant father, he moved to Orange County in 1965 and has lived in Laguna Beach since 1972. In 1998, he began his professional career in environmental review processes (CEQA, NEPA, MND, MND and EIR/EIS). He's a rare mix of cross-trained builder, writer and consultant as he brings his extensive construction experiences dating back to 1972 into his eco-endeavors. He has tremendous field and technical expertise in successful watershed restorations, plus wastewater, urban runoff, water quality monitoring/improvements and hydrologic mechanisms. He's built everything from commercial spas to award-winning private residences, and provided peer review and consultant analyses for single homes, subdivisions and upscale resorts.

View articles written by Roger Butow Read Roger's full biography on the Staff Page

His resumé is extensive, try an online GOOGLE search of his personal journey and historical accomplishments. His consultation fees are reasonable and if you've got a major project that alarms you, that needs creative intervention, then he's your man. His credentials and "CV" can be provided upon request.

Contact him at his office: (949) 715.1912 or drop him an email:




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