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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More Communities Look To Recycling Toilet Water

Ron Wildermuth is pictured at the The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo, Calif. (Jeremy Hobson/Here & Now)

Ron Wildermuth is pictured at the The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo, Calif. (Jeremy Hobson/Here & Now)

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.

Guest

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

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

HOBSON: Wow.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING 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.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

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.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/nathan-hoover/42/838/470 Nathan Hoover

    It is my understanding that even our most sophisticated and thorough water treatment techniques cannot filter out the pharmaceutical soup or the plastic “microbeads” from cosmetics. Not anything I’d like to be drinking.

    • Marcia Schoelen

      Would love to see a follow up from Here and Now on that point.

      • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/nathan-hoover/42/838/470 Nathan Hoover

        Me too, though I did note that Ron Wildermuth claims in the interview that pharmaceuticals have been removed from the final product.

    • Paul

      Reverse Osmosis filters out pharmaceuticals and plastics. This is not cheap, but it is effective. I found this animation to help you understand what it takes.

      http://www.westbasin.org/interact/recycling-process-explained

  • MyName

    What was the song at the end of the segment?

  • Marcia Schoelen

    I was very engaged with the story up until the closing remark of “bring us back Sees Candies instead”. Thought you missed an opportunity to change people’s mindsets, which the story did a fine job of on me, until that.

    • Robin Y

      so sorry!!!!!! I said it was important work!!! We are high on recycled water!!!!
      mea mea culpa…
      R

    • it_disqus

      Really Marcia? The comment by Robin at the fade-out of the story is what caused you to be disengaged? Really? Did you listen to the questions by Jeremy or do you just hold Robin to a higher standard?

      • Marcia Schoelen

        Yes, I do hold Robin to a higher standard. She represents the channel that is giving us the information to change perception, in this case, that treated water from sewage is not desirable. it’s not the report that I found disengaging, just the opportunity to support an important stance on changing attitudes needed in the future of this scarce resource.

        • it_disqus

          Maybe we should hold other H&N host to higher standards.

  • Clifton Bencke

    Dear Robin, darn it, you just trashed your own story about clean water, asking your reporter to bring back candy instead of cleaned water? Have you not learned from your own stories? It’s called the water cycle. As a children’s science presenter told my daughters over twenty years ago; we all drinking dinosaur pee. We are all drinking our own pee. And to answer Nathan here, pharmaceutical soup or the plastic “microbeads” from cosmetics? If you don’t think the water plant can clean out this stuff, who do you think is going to? The fish in the river? We need to stop that pollution from getting into our natural waterways. WE need to be responsible for what’s going down our toilets and sewers. As to Robin’s candy comment, take a look at my 32 y/o daughter on my FB page. That’s what happens when children don’t learn the lesson of what’s important in Life; sweet treats v. clean water, healthy food.

  • Clifton Bencke

    Dear Robin, darn it, you just trashed your own story about clean water, asking your reporter to bring back candy instead of cleaned water? Have you not learned from your own stories? It’s called the water cycle. As a children’s science presenter told my daughters over twenty years ago; we are all drinking dinosaur pee. We are all drinking our own pee. And to answer Nathan here, pharmaceutical soup or the plastic “microbeads” from cosmetics? If you don’t think the water plant can clean out this stuff, who do you think is going to? The fish in the river? We need to stop that pollution from getting into our natural waterways. WE need to be responsible for what’s going down our toilets and sewers. — As to Robin’s candy comment, take a look at my 32 y/o daughter on my FB page. That’s what happens when children don’t learn the lesson of what’s important in Life; treats v. clean water, healthy food.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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