Even If You’re Not an Environmentalist, Potable Reuse is Best Choice for Safe, Affordable Drinking Water

Technology and Innovation
An Interview with Garry Brown,  DPR Advisory Group Chair
Garry Brown Chair, State Water Board DPR Advisory Group President, OC Coastkeeper

Garry Brown
Chair, State Water Board DPR Advisory Group
President, OC Coastkeeper

The State’s recent steps toward direct potable reuse (DPR) might seem like an out of the blue solution to many people. Not to Garry Brown, the Executive Director of OC Coastkeeper. A long-time veteran of Southern California’s battles over water and water quality, Garry has watched for decades as water reuse grew and expanded in Orange County, becoming a popular solution to slake the region’s thirst.

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-9-27-43-amAs part of the State Water Board’s research into the feasibility of DPR, Garry was asked to chair a 15 member Advisory Group consisting of community, water and business leaders. The Advisory Group’s draft DPR report was released in October and contained five recommendations about the feasibility of DPR as well as six additional recommendations to help support implementation.

In a recent interview, Garry recalled several water reuse milestones that all took place in Orange County where he lives. This includes: the creation of Water Factory 21 in the 1970s by Orange County Water District (OCWD), one of the first indirect reuse facilities; the development of purple pipe recycled water systems at the Irvine Ranch Water District; and the incredible success of the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) in Fountain Valley, one of the world’s largest and most advanced indirect potable reuse facilities.

For Garry, DPR is not a surprising or unusual solution to California’s crippling drought. For decades, he’s watched potable reuse grow into a safe and reliable source of water for Orange County. DPR is the next logical step for California – it’s time to share with everyone the reuse solutions Orange County has perfected.

We spoke with Garry at the OC Coastkeeper headquarters in Costa Mesa.

As Chair of the Advisory Group why is DPR important for the future of California’s water supply?

In my 20 years of doing this I’ve never seen the environmental community come together so strongly to embrace a societal solution as we did to embrace direct potable reuse. We believe this is the best, most efficient source for drinking water going forward.

The environmental community is excited about DPR and we’re pleased to see this has good momentum, there is enthusiasm for this at all levels but also caution. There is a recognition we’ve got to do this right, we cannot have a misstep at any stage.

One of the greatest challenges water professionals face for water reuse is public acceptance – will Californians accept DPR?

We’ve seen a huge shift in the public’s attitude toward reuse since 2008 when the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) came on line.  We have to do this DPR regulatory process right, it’s taken this long for the public to get over it. Now that we’ve built that public trust we can’t screw it up.

I think today there is even more public acceptance of reuse. The Orange County Water District took the first courageous step with GWRS and the plant is beyond everyone’s expectations. It could have been a failure but it turned out to be a resounding success. It won the Stockholm Water Prize – the Noble Prize of water. I think there is now a healthy new competition among water districts to get these potable reuse projects done and to outshine one another.

The State Water Board workshop on Oct 4th was interesting, the DPR meeting was a totally different atmosphere. The biggest critic at the meeting wasn’t even critical, his point was every step of this needs to be open, with public transparency and we all agree. Everybody was on the same page at that meeting in Sacramento and that doesn’t happen very often in our political process these days. If you want to talk contentious, talk about the  Delta fix or any number of issues, but at the DPR workshop everyone was together on this.

Garry presented the Advisory Group's report at the State Water Board workshop in October.

Garry presented the Advisory Group’s report at the State Water Board workshop in October.

What happens next for your Advisory Group?

Now that we have the momentum how do we keep it going? I think the State Water Board staff on the drinking water side did a great job – I cannot say enough good things about them. They helped make this a successful process.

What I’m concerned about at this stage is the effort necessary to move forward. We’ll encourage the State Water Board to invest in the research projects that are needed and add staff to get this done.

As of Dec 31st we’ve satisfied everything the Legislature required so everything can stop unless there’s an effort to move this forward. And that’s a concern. We are going to be urging the State Water Board to look at their budgetary process to continue this, not just continue but to add more staff to this. The professional associations raised funds to get the research done so far. Commitment by the State Board is now needed by allocating budget and staff to move this forward.

At OC Coastkeeper we have a commitment to see this through and get it done.

When a member of the public asks about DPR – how do you explain it?

I tell them that there are a number of tools in the toolbox that can be used to develop new sources of water, and certainly during the drought this is important. I say there are some projects like ocean desalination which seem like a romantic, easy solution but has the greatest environmental impact. Desal is by far the most expensive water source and takes three times the energy, so desal is the least best option.

We have proven that basically indirect potable reuse (IPR) is the smartest, most efficient, least impactful and cost effective way to generate drinking water. Under IPR you have to live on top of an aquifer or near a lake so it is only applicable to a few cities,and the water district has to be in control of that lake or aquifer.

DPR is applicable everywhere, that’s the big difference. Cities or regions that need water, whether they are inland or on the coast, they can utilize this option, that’s the real benefit of DPR.

It’s basically comparable to the price we’re paying today for imported water. There is a toolbox full of tools and each city will need to decide which ones to use.

The Advisory Group’s report mentioned water and wastewater operators several times – why are they important in the DPR process?

CWEA and AWWA are listed in the report as the recommended groups for certified training, and we recommend they collaborate together.

The whole foundation of DPR is it has to be done safely and the people who are going to ensure safety are going to be the operators of these facilities. A great amount of attention and care should be given to training and certification, and to the path that is laid out for becoming an operator of an advanced water treatment facility. It’s critical that when we build these billion dollar projects they are operated safely and reliably. And quite frankly, people’s lives will depend on it.

Right now, what gives solace to Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System (an IPR treatment plant) is you have a massive environmental buffer – the aquifer beneath Orange County. There cannot be a crisis because it goes into the ground first. If you find out there’s a problem, okay then shut it down.

If you’re running the same Advanced Water Treatment Plant as a DPR facility, then you know in potentially 36 hours, water will be in the distribution system headed to homes and businesses. That puts more pressure on the operators and that puts pressure on the industry to develop more sophisticated monitoring.

It is the professional associations everyone is looking at to have a major role in this. Everyone is looking to the associations to help get this done right.

Operators at OCWD in Fountain Valley.

Operators at OCWD in Fountain Valley.

Do you worry water quality issues such as Flint could happen here in California?

I’ve been dealing with government all of my  career, and I don’t feel it’s the same world here in California. I think we’re not afraid of tough regulations. California at every level of government has more transparency required, and it is regulated transparency. One of the Advisory Group recommendations is to put daily monitoring data real-time onto the water district’s website. That’s real transparency. The Advisory Group had long conversations about public confidence and trust.

Each year Orange County Water District hosts public tours of the GWRS. I’ve taken so many I could give the tours. You go to the microfiltration area and people go ooo-ahh look how big this is. Then they go to the UV building and see the ultraviolet units and ooo-ahh. Then you get to the lab and if you’re in a group of 20 people 10 hands will go up. And as those questions are answered, more questions come up. It is here at the lab where the real conversation starts. What about this? What about that? What don’t you know? How can we trust you? If you sample for two years and get non-detects do you quit sampling and how do we know for sure? I’ve observed this over and over during lab visits. You walk through the plant and then you get to the lab and that’s where the public conversation really starts. People want to know.

So I think we have to pick up on that. If we have an exhaustive regiment of sampling that a facility is doing and they get a bunch of non-detects – don’t quit sampling. I think we have to have that database, we have to be transparent, and not only transparent but proactively transparent. Build public trust by putting everything online.

By building trust, I don’t see what happened in Flint happening here. I don’t see the atmosphere here, even with plant operators. If they see something wrong, they would put a stop to it. I give the operators a lot of credit, I don’t think it’s the same working environment. I think there are a lot of avenues for operators to express concerns and to be a whistleblower.

So it’s a different environment, so I hope we’re a level above. I hope we have government managers who would not try to save a few bucks on the backs of the people’s health.

One of the Advisory Group’s recommendations was improvements on source control – why should people care what they flush?

There was a side bar during the State Water Board workshop where one of the members brought up source control. Another speaker got up and said the direction we’re headed people will now be aware this is going to be peoples drinking water, and if people understand  that maybe they’ll be more careful with what they put down the toilet. Next time they go to pour an old bottle of pills down the toilet perhaps they’re going to think, “Hey I shouldn’t do that.” I think once everybody gets the fact and connects the dots that what goes down the drain goes into the drinking water.

It brings up the partnership thing. GWRS proved it requires a 50/50 partnership between Orange County Sanitation District and Orange County Water District to properly manage potable reuse. It is critical, there has got to be a good partnership, defined communication, and the people in charge at each agency defined. That partnership is what’s going to make DPR successful and it heavily relies on source control.

OCSD has done a great job over the years in making source control a priority. When we started GWRS there were pages and pages of constituents we were sampling for and the amount of detects were in nano particles, so small. We were sampling for a huge regiment of constituents and that’s all related to source control and what comes in. I think there will be more sophisticated technology and even more emphasis on source control through this whole process.

When you look at DPR it is going to improve the wastewater industry in so many ways.

What happens next?

The feeling I got at the State Water Board workshop is they are more committed to this than they ever have been. Yet you’ll hear each one of them say they want to see DPR evolve but we have to do it right and we have to do it safely, we cannot have a misstep.

The expert panel recommended six different areas where we need to do further research, the next step is to work with the industry to continue the funding for those. The Expert Panel is under contract until the end of the year so I expect a few more meetings before the end of the year and before the report is done.

Okay, so how do we really sharpen those areas we need further research and how do we define it and how do we go forward? I think it will be up to the State Board to find funding. The onus is on the State Board to assimilate what they’ve received and to work with their staff on the next step, to support those recommendations, fund them and get them going.

I would say in the absence of that, legislation got this going and we can always go back to the Legislature and get the Legislature to move forward on DPR.

Waterkeepers sample some purified water at the GWRS in Orange County.

Waterkeepers sample some purified water at the GWRS in Orange County.

Are you surprised DPR is about to become a reality for California?

I don’t think it is a surprise. I got immersed in IPR in early 2000 trying to understand it. Twenty years ago we had two waters – this stormwater and urban runoff that was polluted and a liability. Let’s design development so it flows off and we get rid of it. It is not an asset to anybody.

Over here there’s this precious water that comes down the Santa Ana River and that is potential drinking water that we can infiltrate into the aquifer basin. We have a whole set of laws that protect and love that water. What GWRS taught us is we don’t have two waters, we only have one water. It is all potential drinking water.

Get rid of the silos, get rid of the two sets of laws and treat it all as potential drinking water. It’s called capture and reuse. It’s been a term for a long time but we’re living it now. It’s changed OC Coastkeeper, we spend as much time if not more on drinking water issues as we do on urban runoff and storm flows and MS4.

It started with Orange County, we’re a little different, we’ve always been an innovator of water. When GWRS came online I think that success brought everything forward very quickly. Suddenly reuse was feasible. It was possible. At the plant we were producing clean water at $388 af in 2013, that’s incredible. The GWRS has been the one thing that has fast forwarded this whole conversation.

What’s coming into focus here is California has the opportunity to lead, and Orange County really planted the seed. The State Water Board has an awesome opportunity, I think the state of California has an awesome opportunity but there’s a window and they’ve got to fund it and make sure this goes forward.

How does DPR compare to ocean desal?

The foundation of all of this is safe and reliable and operators who know what they are doing. It is a great time for the industry, the next decade will show a lot. I think this moment will be a historic change. If there is positive side of a bad coin like the drought, it is that it has helped drive innovation.

I think the drought is an advantage in this process. In the environmental community it’s not even a question for us – DPR is the way to go. Ocean desal has many disadvantages. GWRS has been putting nearly distilled quality water into that aquifer for years – completely safe, completely efficient.

Even if you don’t have an environmental bone in your body – water reuse is a better business model – it’s cheaper. It’s three times cheaper than desal. It’s the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

If Poseidon’s facility in Huntington Beach is built, the salinity in the product water will actually degrade Orange County’s aquifer–it doesn’t make sense on any level. Particularly in need.

At Coastkeeper we want to support, help to push, and be a partner in evolving DPR to the point we have a set of regulations and make it a viable option for everyone.