More Communities Look To Recycling Toilet Water

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Here&New, NPR, Tuesday, 3/18/14

Here & Now More Communities Look To Recycling Toilet Water

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As California deals with a historic drought, more communities are looking to recycling sewage and storm runoff as a way to deal with the water crisis.

At the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo, California, Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Ron Wildermuth, manager of public and government affairs for the West Basin Municipal Water District.

Wildermuth says the facility prevents 45 million gallons of sewer water going to the ocean each day, and it produces five different types of water for industrial and commercial uses, including water that ultimately is used for drinking.

Related: From Toilet To Tap: City Officials Say Get Used To Drinking Recycled Water

Guest; Ron Wildermuth, manager of public and government affairs for the West Basin Municipal Water District.



This is HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson. And I'm in El Segundo, California. You can hear we're outside right now. I'm at a water recycling facility. Now as this state has had to deal with a historic drought, many people are looking to water recycling as one possible way to deal with the problem. And I'm here with Ron Wildermuth. He's manager of public information and conservation for the West Basin Municipal Water District. Ron, thanks so much for being here.

RON WILDERMUTH: Hi Jeremy, it's a pleasure to be here.

HOBSON: Well, so tell me first of all what happens at this plant.

WILDERMUTH: Oh, we make five types of usable water out of sewer water.

HOBSON: Sewer water.

WILDERMUTH: Right, from your toilets. And we're the only facility in the world that does that.

HOBSON: We've talked about toilet to tap on the show, but that's exactly what it is.

WILDERMUTH: Well, it's toilet to environmental buffer to tap.


HOBSON: OK. That's a nice way of putting it. And is anybody drinking it?

WILDERMUTH: Oh yeah. People in Southern California have been drinking recycled water for decades. You talked about the current drought. Well, this plant was conceived and started to be built after the last drought in late '80s, early '90s.

HOBSON: Well, tell us what we're looking at here because as I look in front of me I see a big thing that looks like a flying saucer, maybe.

WILDERMUTH: Right. OK, what you're seeing is basically that's how we make irrigation water. And then as you look over here, you see some more sophisticated equipment. And basically those are to house tiny straws. And when we make our really pure water, the first step is putting it through the sides of plastic straws. Those plastic straws have holes 300 times smaller than a human hair.

HOBSON: So that you're essentially getting everything but the water out of what you're putting into it.

WILDERMUTH: Right, we're taking with the magic straws, we're taking out particles, bacteria, protozoa and any viruses attached to that. Then the next step, which is putting water through the molecular structure of a sheet of plastic, that's the ultimate.

HOBSON: I have to say as we just crossed the street into this area, the smell is not fantastic.

WILDERMUTH: Hey, that's the smell of freedom. That's the smell of future water.


WILDERMUTH: You know, we have about a million gallons of sewer water or wastewater that goes to the ocean every day. We need to clean that and use it, and we'll be doing that in the future.

HOBSON: We're walking through an area here that is huge pipes all connecting to each other, different colors, and this is all filtration, right Ron?

WILDERMUTH: Yes, it is, in fact I'm holding up right now one of our micro-filter membranes. There's 2,000 straws in this membrane. And the full-size membrane you'll see over here is four foot long, and we basically put those in basins vertically and then put a little vacuum on the top of the straws.

It works just like your Big Gulp, OK. When you take the soda out of the Big Gulp, the ice stays in the cup because it's too big to go through the straw.

HOBSON: When you say straws, they look like the bristles on a toothbrush.

WILDERMUTH: They're straws. If you had a magnifying glass...

HOBSON: They have holes in the middle of them?

WILDERMUTH: Absolutely, absolutely. It's pumping water up to the microfiltration basins.

HOBSON: Yeah, it's - you know, we're so close to Los Angeles International Airport, people hearing this may think that a 747 is flying overhead, but no, that is the sound of the machinery right here.

WILDERMUTH: Basically the movement of water, pumping it through these big pipes, these massive pipes. We do 45 million gallons a day. That's enough for 60,000 families.


WILDERMUTH: That's a big chunk of water. In fact we just finished producing 150 billion gallons.

HOBSON: Right here at this plant?

WILDERMUTH: Right at this plant since 1995. That's enough water, if you put it in one-gallon jugs, to go around the equator 10,000 times.

HOBSON: What about the expense of all of this?

WILDERMUTH: It's not cheap, but depending on different types of water, we provide irrigation water for 20 percent less than imported water, OK. And then some of our more sophisticated waters that we give to the refineries, they pay more for that.

HOBSON: Do you ever see a day when there's going to be bottled recycled water?

WILDERMUTH: Absolutely. In fact I think that's one of the tools we need to educate the public and to move from that indirect potable to direct potable, where we can make the treatment process more robust and then have some capability to test it before we release it. And then someday instead of putting it in a reservoir or a groundwater basin we'll put it directly into the pipes.

HOBSON: Now what are these?

WILDERMUTH: These are reverse osmosis vessels. Inside every one of those vessels are seven reverse-osmosis membranes, which are basically sheets of plastic, and the water's traveling horizontally under pressure in those tubes. And as soon as the water is pressurized to go through the sheet of plastic, it spins to the center like a jellyroll. And that water is pure.

Now if the water doesn't make it to the center on the first run-through, we send it to a second run-through. If it doesn't make it to the center on the second run-through, we use a third. And that way we get 85 percent of the water we started with.

This is kind of our last treatment process. It's our safety barrier. It's where we run the water through ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. And we have to do that because there's a chemical in all wastewater called NDMA or nitrosodimethylamine. And it comes from lunch meat and beer and wine and milk.

HOBSON: Just being in the wastewater?

WILDERMUTH: Yeah, and because it's in the wastewater and a suspected carcinogen, we take it out. So that's - the water you're going to taste today, totally free of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers.

HOBSON: Lunch meats, beer and wine.

WILDERMUTH: That's right. Let's go drink the water. Now let me drink it first to show you how I love this water. And I am serious when I say this is the best tasting water I can get my hands on. And after talking to you for a while, I need this water.


WILDERMUTH: Now you taste it.

HOBSON: OK, let me try it. Tastes like normal water.

WILDERMUTH: Tastes like water. I knew that's what you were going to say. Actually this water has been - we've added minerals to it. We've added a little chlorine to it. So we call it stabilized water. If you took water directly out of reverse osmosis or the ultraviolet light, you couldn't taste it. It would have no taste because all the minerals are gone.

HOBSON: And whenever anybody asks where did this water come from, you just say don't ask or what?

WILDERMUTH: No, we say it came from sewer water 30 minutes ago.

HOBSON: Thirty minutes ago.

WILDERMUTH: That's correct. That's how fast the process works. But it's such a good process.

HOBSON: Well Ron Wildermuth, manager of public information and conservation for the West Basin Municipal Water District, thanks so much for the tour.

WILDERMUTH: Thank you, Jeremy, and the tap's always open for you.


Jeremy Hobson in California, great, important idea, but no offense, Jeremy, we'd rather when you come back you bring back See's Candies. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.