LOS ANGELES - As a hedge against water shortages and population growth, Orange County, Calif., has begun operating the world's largest, most modern reclamation plant - a facility that can turn 70 million gallons of treated sewage into drinking water every day.
The new purification system at the Orange County Water District headquarters cost about $490 million and comprises a labyrinth of pipes, filters, holding tanks, and pumps across 20 acres.
Almost four years after construction began, the facility is now purifying effluent from a neighboring sewage treatment plant run by the Orange County Sanitation District, a partner in the venture.
The finished product will be injected into the county's vast groundwater basin to combat saltwater intrusion and supplement drinking water supplies for 2.3 million people in coastal, central, and northern Orange County.
But before that can be done, state health officials must certify that the reclaimed water meets drinking water standards. Officials expect the approval to be granted before opening ceremonies Jan. 25.
"Our sources from [the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta] and the Colorado River are becoming unavailable," said Michael R. Markus, general manager of the water district. "This will help drought-proof the region and give us a locally controlled source of water."
Last month, for example, a federal judge ordered a 30 percent reduction in fresh water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the tiny delta smelt, a threatened species. The region, which is facing myriad environmental problems, is the hub of California's water system.
If the reclamation plant's full potential is realized, officials say, up to 130 million gallons a day could be added to the county's fresh water supply, lessening the region's dependence on outside sources.
Basically, the facility takes treated sewage, which would have been discharged into the sea, and runs it through an advanced filtration system.
"This is as advanced a reclamation system as you are going to get right now," said Krista Clark, director of regulatory affairs for the Association of California Water Agencies, a nonprofit organization that represents 450 government authorities.
At $550 an acre-foot, the recycled water is slightly more expensive than supplies brought in from Northern California. But water district officials predict that the cost of the treated water will become more competitive as the price of imported water rises.
In Orange County, water reclamation has not faced much opposition thanks to public awareness and the water district's extensive marketing campaign: plant tours, pizza parties, and public meetings to explain the process.