Activists take aim at next big water idea
Paul Gratz of Desal Alternatives is standing 3 inches behind a microphone stand, wearing a white shirt and gray pants. Behind him is a sign that reads “Will this float in Santa Cruz? Vote ‘No’ to reused toilet waste.”
“It’s not the time for desal. It’s not the time for potable reuse,” Gratz says. “It’s fatal, it’s flawed and it’s foolish. And there’s probably other f-words that could be added to that.”
It’s the oral communications period at the beginning of the Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC) meeting on Thursday, Aug. 13. Gratz is talking about the idea of treating wastewater for drinking purposes, a process called Direct Potable Reuse, or DPR, currently being studied by the California Department of Public Health.
Two years ago, Gratz, as an active member of Desal Alternatives, helped convince Santa Cruz city leaders to put controversial plans for a desalination plant on hold. These days, he and fellow activists have set their sights on recycled water, which they say may be unsafe. Gratz says recycled water will become more unpopular than desal.
Just 10 minutes earlier, university professor Mike Orbach had spoken about the benefits of DPR. Orbach—a cultural anthropologist with a bushy white mustache—has been going to Singapore every year for more than a decade to teach a Duke University class called Environmental Conservation in Southeast Asia. The country has been using recycled water for years.
“Not only does it produce the highest-quality drinking water in the world—it’s far above all the requirements for the World Health Organization—but they [also] treat the system as part of the culture of Singapore,” Orbach tells GT. Singaporeans view their first treatment plant as a national treasure and come out in droves for tours of the facility.
For years, Singapore has imported water from Malaysia, but leaders have been moving toward water security, thanks largely to recycled water and desalination. The country gets 30 percent of its water from treated wastewater—most of which gets used in factories for non-potable uses. A small percentage of that gets pumped out to reservoirs, where it mixes with freshwater, gets treated again and ends up in drinking water.
Putting treated wastewater in reservoirs is not currently legal in California, although in 2013 state officials began allowing water districts to put such water underground in aquifers to rest overdrafted wells.
A year ago, the WSAC began investigating dozens of options, and has been narrowing it down ever since. If the 14-member committee does approve DPR, it will likely be a part of a bigger strategy.
Wastewater includes water not just from toilets, but also from sinks, showers and drains. It remains to be seen what state officials will find, but activists from Desal Alternatives say the water may have treatment chemicals in “trace amounts”—perhaps a few parts per billion or per trillion. They say there may also be contaminants of special concern and endocrine disrupters, which may in turn be associated with developmental disorders, body deformations and cancer.
Rick Longinotti, who represents Desal Alternatives on the WASC, admitted at last week’s meeting that just a couple of years ago many desal opponents were very supportive of recycled water when desal was still on the table. He says they didn’t speak for himself or for everyone in the group, and that at the time it seemed like the lesser of two evils. Now it looks less attractive to him, as he’s learned more about its risks, as well as the benefits of other alternatives.
Even now, much of the DPR’s opposition hasn’t been without nuance. According to Desal Alternatives’ official position on its website, recycled water could one day be a “last-resort back-up water supply strategy,” as long as certain criteria were met.
Nuance aside, some of the city’s more passionate critics have been stirring up crap, anyway. Santa Cruz Sentinel cartoonist Steven DeCinzo, for instance, did a rendering of Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard as a toilet-water-serving caricature named “Rosemary Poopins.”
Last resort or not, even those supporting DPR say it wouldn’t be their first option.
“Personally, I’m not in love with DPR because it has some political uncertainty. There’s a ‘yuck’ factor,” says Greg Pepping, who represents the Coastal Watershed Council on the WSAC.
The WSAC is looking at a variety of options. Most of them involve sending excess winter water from the city of Santa Cruz to Scotts Valley or Soquel Creek water districts, both of which rely on groundwater. That would allow Santa Cruz’s neighbors to rest their wells. Maybe during dry summers they will be able to send water back to Santa Cruz someday.
Those are all considered “Plan A” options that will be more popular, though maybe less effective. “Plan B” options have higher costs, both environmental and financial. They include recycled water, perhaps even desal. The committee is weighing not only which projects to pursue, but also how to fund and prioritize the options it prefers, like water swaps, alongside possible backup plans, such as recycled water.
“The phrase we use is two trains leaving the station at the same time,” Pepping says. “And the destination is conservation.”
The committee has found that the Santa Cruz Water Department could face a water shortfall of 1.3 billion gallons if it takes no action. Most members agree that only about 200 million gallons of that, or 15 percent, could be saved through increased conservation.
The committee’s final step will be a recommendation for the city council.
“We can smell it. We’re getting really close to a solution,” Pepping says. “There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us, but there’s a solution, and we’re going to get there. I hope the community will be satisfied.”
SMELL TEST Paul Gratz and other activists from Desal Alternatives are concerned about possible health risks from recycled water, which the Water Supply Advisory Committee may pursue. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER