From waste to taste: Orange County sets Guinness record for recycled water

Greg Mellen, Orange County Register 2/18/18

The motto for the bottled drinking water reclaimed from wastewater by the Orange County Water and Sanitation districts reads “Tastes like water because it is water.”  A slightly more blunt message reads “Get over it.”

The Orange County Sanitation and Water Districts are working hard to get rid of reclaimed water’s perception problem, “the yuck factor,”  as Denis Bilodeau, president of the water district calls it, of converting wastewater to a liquid that exceeds government standards for purity.

For a decade, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System, has been pumping reclaimed water into the ground basin. Over the weekend, to celebrate the groundwater system’s 10th anniversary, the districts partnered on a world record-setting endeavor. In 24 hours, more than 100 million gallons of wastewater was converted into potable – or suitable for drinking – water and pumped it into the country ground basin.

On Friday afternoon, officials stopped the 24-hour clock and looked at the numbers. A counter read 100,008,000 gallons of drinkable recycled water produced.

That set the world record as judged by Guinness, which sent an adjudicator from New York to witness the event. This is nothing new for the districts. They have been producing similar totals daily for years. The number sets the benchmark for others to chase.

The replenishment system aims to grow eventually to a capacity of 130 million gallons daily. The water, previously pumped into the ocean, not only helps to sustain the county groundwater basin, but creates a barrier to prevent seawater intrusion into the water supply. It also greatly reduces the county’s need for more expensive imported water and uses less energy than imported or desalinated, according to the water district.

Greg Sebourn, chairman of the board for the Orange County Sanitation District, says though it may seem unrealistic today, he would like to see a time when Orange County is entirely self-sufficient in its water supply.

The world record attempt was staged as drought conditions are returning to California and underscores the importance of being able to capture, treat and recycle local wastewater and replenish a groundwater basin serving 19 municipal water districts and more than 2.5 million people, according to officials.

The Groundwater Replenishment System, operated jointly by water and sanitation district, is the world’s largest facility to take treated wastewater and purify it to a level that exceeds state and national drinking water standards. After going through the recycling process, the water is so pure, it is near-distilled in quality and actually has minerals added back for taste.

“We can do a better job than Mother Nature,” Bilodeau said.

Recycling wastewater is nothing new. The water department in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, has recycled wastewater since 1968, but no groundwater systems are of the scale of Orange County’s.

“I’m proud that our agencies had the vision to implement this local solution more than a decade ago that has helped us better weather drought, increase local water reliability and stands as a model for world-wide use,” Bilodeau said.