California Water History:
The Origin of ‘Toilet-to-Tap’

The origin story of the infamous, anti-water reuse phrase
By Alec Mackie, CWEA, History

1986-1992: California endures one of its longest droughts.

1989: Earle Hartling, a water reuse coordinator with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, begins discussions with Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District (Upper District) about a water purification and replenishment project to help refill the declining local aquifer.

1991: Suffering from severe water restrictions, the City of San Diego begins research and planning for the “Water Repurification Project”, an advanced treatment process that would lead to reusing water to recharge the San Vicente Reservoir.

A judge overseeing the San Gabriel Valley groundwater basin approves Upper District’s use of recycled water for groundwater replenishment.

Winter 1991-1992: An unusually strong El Niño brings significant rainfall, a “March Miracle” and ends California’s six year drought.

October-December 1993:  Full page newspaper ads from the advocacy group “Citizens for Clean Water” argue against the San Gabriel reuse project but they don’t use the toilet-to-tap phrase yet.

December 12, 1993: The intro of an in-depth LA Times story notes critics of the Upper District’s project have started calling it a “‘toilet-to-tap’ folly.” This is the first ever use of the phrase in a major newspaper.

According to reporter Berkley Hudson, there are no records of who said it first. “It’s a very catchy phrase, the type of term that would be tweeted and retweeted these days.”

According to research conducted by Anna Sklar for the Los Angeles City Historical Society, Miller Brewing originated the phrase. Representatives for Molson-Coors say they have no records showing where the phrase originated.

1994: Miller Brewing Company runs a full page advertisement listing their reasons for not supporting the Upper District reuse project after late night comedians, including Jay Leno, start telling jokes about Miller beer. The ad does not use the phrase “toilet-to-tap”.

1995: Miller Brewing sues the Upper District and LACSD over the project’s environmental impact reports. Miller’s Irwindale brewery employs 800 people and pumps groundwater from wells one mile from the proposed spreading grounds.

Groundwater experts estimate Miller might receive a mix of 2-3% of purified reuse water from its pumped groundwater.  Before the brewing process begins, Miller uses reverse osmosis to produce ultrapure water and ensure the source water for their beer is exactly the same across their worldwide network of breweries.

1993-1996:  As the court fight and negotiations between Upper District, LACSD and Miller Brewing continue, the phrase “toilet-to-tap” doesn’t show-up again in several LA Times follow-up articles about the project.

1996: Miller, Upper District and LACSD negotiate a settlement. Upper District votes to shelve the reuse project as increased rainfall and imports help stabilize the aquifer. While the project was revisited several times over the years, it has yet to be implemented.


Headline writers had a field day with the catchy alliteration ‘toilet-to-tap’

1997: The Dublin San Ramon Sanitary District undertakes a water reuse planning project called Clean Water Revival (CWR) as local aquifers decline and an outfall pipeline used to send clean effluent to the Bay reaches maximum carrying capacity.

1997-1998: The City of San Diego continues planning on the Water Repurification Project but runs into opposition. “Toilet-to-tap” is used extensively in media coverage of the project, including a local television, multi-day sweeps week series about potable reuse with a backdrop of a toilet connected by a pipe to a kitchen sink.

The term comes up frequently during public debates, including at a large townhall meeting led by two State representatives; as well as in newspaper articles.

1999: San Diego’s City Council votes to shelve the Water Repurification Project based on several different factors.

April 2000: The City of Los Angeles prepares to start-up the $55-million East Valley Water Reclamation Project. Purified water is about to start flowing to spreading grounds.

The same day, April 16, 2000, the Los Angeles Daily News runs an article “‘Toilet-to-Tap’ Water Project Ready to Begin.” In it, Los Angeles City Council member Joel Wachs’ office is quoted as pushing back against the project.

2000-2001: Councilmember Wachs runs for Mayor of Los Angeles, and a proposition is added to the April 2001 ballot calling for the San Fernando Valley to secede from the City of Los Angeles. During the contentious debates over the mayoral race and secession, the East Valley Water Reclamation Program is repeatedly brought up.

The reuse project becomes a rallying cry for secessionists. City Attorney James Hahn puts a temporary pause on the Easy Valley project.

April 2001: James Hahn is elected Mayor of the City of Los Angeles and confirms the project will remain shutdown.  During the debate over the project, the term “toilet-to-tap” is used at least 83 times in newspapers across the country, according to Many use the term in headlines.

In addition, the debate became fodder for late night comedians. Tonight Show host Jay Leno would use the sound of a toilet flushing in the background as he joked about water reuse in Los Angeles.

November 2002: After encountering opponents using the “toilet-to-tap” phrase and raising many of the same issues raised in the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles reuse debates, the Dublin San Ramon Sanitary District shelves the CWR groundwater replenishment project and instead pivots to building a reuse project for industrial and landscape applications.


In November 2020 the Coors Irwindale brewery was sold to Pabst Brewing as the Molson-Coors Corporation consolidates its breweries. We reached out to Molson Coors to see if the brewer’s views of recycled water have changed over the years.

“Molson Coors supports communities that recycle water for indirect and direct reuse as long as the treatment processes are robust, they don’t degrade existing resources, and result in water supplies that meet or exceed minimum standards,” said Audrey Templeton the Enterprise Risk Manager for Molson-Coors.

1994 Miller Brewing ad in the Los Angeles Times

“The concerns in the [1994 Miller Brewing] newspaper ad are valid.  Clean water is essential to business and the community.  Many stakeholders were not satisfied, and although we’re not sure the phrase came from Miller, the potential impact of the project on our primary water supply represented the worst-case scenario with respect to how consumers and our competitors might perceive our products and how others in the community might perceive the water from their taps.”

Most brewers and beverage producers use high-tech filtration systems to pre-treat source waters and ensure a clean, reliable supply of high-quality water. The technologies are similar to systems used inside advanced water treatment facilities that purify recycled water. Treatment steps include reverse osmosis (RO) ultrafiltration technology. RO produces water so clean and pure, minerals must be readded before it can be used as drinking water or in a beverage.

“Miller has additional treatment measure for incoming water, which may have alleviated a decline in water quality,” said Audrey.  “Most homeowners and businesses do not.  Additional diligence was needed.  Molson Coors would stand up again for clean water if necessary.”

From Earle’s perspective, it would be best for the water profession to pivot away from the term.

“I want it to just fade into obscurity. It originated as pejorative term with the express intent of frightening people.

“Today people know and understand how the water reuse process works. The science has become so accessible and thorough. People can take a tour and see the membranes, reverse osmosis, UV, advanced oxidation and all the treatment bells and whistles we add on for safety. It demonstrates how much we care about safe drinking water.

“People are more aware today of our dwindling water supply and what we need to do to secure new supplies,” said Earle.

For LA Times reporter Berkley Hudson, digging deeper into where political slogans originate and how they are being used are important details for reporters to share with readers.

“Let’s think more deeply about the origins of these slogans and ask lots of questions. Let’s define it.” suggested Berkley. “What is the science behind it? What are the economic interests? Who are the actors involved and what are their motivations? Whose voice is being heard and whose voice is missing from the discussion?”

According to WateReuse California leader Patricia Tennyson, “It’s important to know this term is out there, headline writers are going to continue using it.

“Water utilities need to have a comprehensive, consistent and sustained outreach program that tells people what this really is and why it is an important project for their community. Use the ‘toilet-to-tap’ phrase as a conversation starter if it comes up and lay out facts,” said Tennyson, an executive for public affairs consulting firm Katz and Associates.

The Molson-Coors executive also suggested it’s time for recycled water to get a rebranding.

“Toilet to Tap is negative. A new phrase that instills confidence in the water’s purity, for example “engineered to zero water”, or highlights the process, such as “naturally reclaimed water,” should be put into use,” Audrey told us.


What’s your opinion? What should the water profession do about the term “toilet-to-tap”?

Email your thoughts and ideas to [email protected], subject “TTT Ideas.”