Environment & Science

Drought: 'Designer water' repurposes wastewater for multiple uses

The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of "designer" recycled water for uses in irrigation and inside refineries.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
USC engineering graduate students in a physicochemical processes in water treatment course tour the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
Chris Morrow, a third-year PhD student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, samples recycled water from the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo during a tour on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
Don Zylstra, senior water resources engineer for the West Basin Municipal Water District, leads a tour at the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
USC engineering graduate students in a physicochemical processes in water treatment course tour the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo recycled 12 billion gallons of water during the 2013 to 2014 fiscal year.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
Students from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering sample recycled water at the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
Temitayo Abegunde, laboratory manager for contractor United Water, talks with USC graduate students during a tour at the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
Eric Owens, operations project manager for the West Basin Municipal Water District leads the second half of a tour at the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo produces five types of
The Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo houses a 60,000 square foot solar power generating system.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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They call it “designer water” – but you won't find it an exclusive store. Wastewater converted for non-drinking uses has never been more fashionable in Southern California, and recycling water is a key part of a strategy to develop sustainable water locally, rather than through imported supplies.

“We tailor the water to the customer’s needs,” said West Basin General Manager Rich Nagel. “Why do we use drinking water to irrigate lawns?”

At an anonymous office park, in a maze of blue pipes and beige buildings, West Basin’s Edward C. Little Recycling Facility takes in billions of gallons of wastewater from the city of L.A.’s Hyperion Treatment Plant – as much as 10 percent of what goes there – and makes it over into five kinds of water designed for specific uses.  

“You’ve used it once if it goes to a wastewater plant, but if you bring it back over here, you’ve used it twice,” Nagel said. “That makes a lot of sense.”

This past year West Basin recycled a record amount of wastewater, equivalent to supplies for almost 300,000 people. Over the life of its recycling plant, Nagel said his district has saved water equivalent to a year’s supply for a city the size of Los Angeles.

Irrigation water goes to nearby golf courses, commercial properties and AEG’s StubHub field – home to the newly minted champion L.A. Galaxy.

West Basin also creates water to exacting specifications for industrial use, in cooling towers and fed into boilers at refineries and other plants. Forcing water through tiny holes in microfiber eliminates bacteria and particles. A step called reverse osmosis takes out almost everything else.

"They ask for certain chemical properties in the water. We would have a customer that would say, 'I need to have these things in the water, and these things out,'" he said. "The things they don’t want in the water we remove with a specific treatment process."

In a final step, the water is mixed with hydrogen peroxide and blasted with ultraviolet light.  “Basically, a tanning salon times 10 if you go in one of those, that’s how much light’s emitted,” Nagel said. “That’s just to purify and disinfect the water.”

What comes out just 20 minutes or so after it arrives at the recycling plant is as clean as bottled water, maybe cleaner.

Indirect drinking water produced after a final step of ultraviolet purification is helping solve a problem that dates back to the 1940s, when over-pumping pulled well water to a dangerously low level in southwestern L.A. County. 

“A few of the beach cities were watering their lawns, and the lawns turned yellow,” Nagel said. “And the reason why – because that well supply had been overused and allowed the seawater to intrude with the fresh groundwater.”

Engineers still use billions of gallons of water each year to replenish those pumped-out wells in 300 injection wells along the coast. This year, water West Basin delivered to those wells was all designer water, so-called indirect drinking water shot into the ground.

“To stop the ocean from coming in, it creates a big water wall,” said Ted Johnson with the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

For a long time, that big water wall was mostly drinking water, delivered from Northern California through the State Water Project

“We want to be able to put all of the water we need into the ground from local sources,” Johnson said. “Our biggest challenge is getting off the imported water. It’s expensive, and it’s unreliable.”

West Basin’s recycling plant isn’t permitted to take what came out of a toilet and place it directly into a tap. But new regulations call upon California officials to develop statewide standards for recycling water to higher uses. And Prop 1, the big water bond approved in light of the drought, envisions many more facilities like it.

Nagel pointed out that a big drought in the late 1980s was the reason West Basin built its treatment plant and got into designer water in the first place.

“Projects like these, where there’s a resource that’s readily available, that’s just being discharged, we’ve got to do more of these,” Nagel said. “These sources … are drought-proof.”

West Basin’s planning on doubling its production of designer water by 2020.