Motivation Meets Innovation in the Name of Water Conservation

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen—so smart water use matters more than ever before. Earlier this month, I visited Southern California to get a firsthand look at some of the largest and most successful efforts to reuse and recycle water in the country.


From left to right: Jim Colson, Environmental Compliance Manager, Orange County Sanitation District; Nancy Stoner, Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water; Benita Best-Wong, Director of EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds; Mike Wehner, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Water District; and Dr. Robert Ghirelli, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Sanitation District. Photo credit: Jason Dadakis, Orange County Water District


One of the facilities I visited was the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System, which puts highly treated wastewater collected from the county’s sewer system—and that would otherwise be discharged into the Pacific Ocean—to beneficial use in the county’s water supply. Finding innovative ways for municipalities and businesses to use water is a priority for EPA.

Once the treated wastewater enters the local sanitation system, it goes through a series of purification steps. The end product is high-quality water that’s free of potentially-harmful microbes, viruses and other contaminants. The facility contributes to Orange County’s drinking water supply by replenishing groundwater, and the water the facility produces is clean enough to drink before it is stored underground — I had a glass of it during my visit.

The Orange County facility produces more than 23 billion gallons per year of recycled water, using less than half the energy that it takes to desalinate ocean water, and less than a third the energy required to pump water from Northern California to Orange County and surrounding areas. The result is a safe and reliable supply of freshwater to replenish the Orange County groundwater basin and prevent seawater from intruding into the county’s groundwater.

I also visited Orange County’s “tri-generation” facility, which isn’t just the first of its kind in the country, it’s the first high temperature fuel cell tri-generation demonstration system in the world. At a typical wastewater treatment plant, biogas is produced and combusted in a boiler to provide heat for the wastewater treatment operations. At the Orange County facility, the biogas is fed to a high temperature fuel cell that uses the novel “tri-generation” system to simultaneously produce renewable electricity and heat to support wastewater treatment operations, as well as hydrogen to refuel hydrogen powered vehicles.

Increasingly, all across the country, community water supplies are being stressed by the impacts of drought (worsened by climate change), population growth and development. The lessons learned by Orange County and the success of their projects can serve as a template for planning similar projects nationwide that support the concept that no water should be wasted.