November 29, 2016 - From the November, 2016 issue

Orange County Water District Leads On Recycling & Groundwater Management

In September, the Orange County Water District Board of Directors voted unanimously to upgrade their water recycling program. The District manages the groundwater basin for Orange County communities north of Irvine The expansion of the Groundwater Replenishment System will increase the amount of water treated and sent back to underground basins by 30 million gallons a day. TPR sat down with OCWD General Manager Mike Markus, a 25-year veteran of the agency, to discuss how Orange County has continued to lead on water reuse in Southern California. Markus discusses the visionary leadership of his board in increasing the amount of potable water produced from 100 million gallons per day to 130 million gallons, as well as adopting the most cutting-edge reverse osmosis technologies on the market.

Mike Markus

"The big news is that our board recently approved moving forward with our final expansion. In September, the board took the bold step of moving towards our 130 million gallons per day target." - Mike Markus, General Manager, Orange County Water District

Let’s begin with the Orange County Water District’s mission, which you are charged with carrying out.

Mike Markus: First, to explain OCWD’s mission and scope, we manage a very large groundwater basin in the northern and central part of Orange County that provides about 75 percent of the water demands for 2.4 million residents.

Our agency manages a non-adjudicated groundwater basin, which means that our board of directors set the amount of pumping of groundwater out of the basin. That number can go up or down based on the condition of the basin.

Because of the state of the climate in Southern California, we could not rely on rainwater to meet our needs. So, we turned to recycled water and we did it in quite a big way.

What explains OCWD’s success over the decades in recycling so much of Orange County’s water and dramatically increasing the percentage of water reuse?

We can really trace our spirit of innovation back to the mid-1970s, when we saw seawater coming inland and potentially contaminating our groundwater basin.

At that time, our board and management decided that we needed to stop that seawater. So, we built a series of injection wells along the coast and in the valley. Then, we built a first-of-its-kind facility to utilize reverse osmosis to treat wastewater into near-distilled quality water. That project went online in the late 1970s, and was very cutting edge for its time.

We chose to use recycled water because we wanted something that we could rely upon and knew that we would have it in supply to inject into the wells to protect us from the saltwater. We continued to increase injections to build up a barrier from the saltwater intrusion, which allowed us to operate the groundwater basin at lower levels and take full advantage of our local water supply.

By the early 1990s, the state was in a very severe drought and our region was looking to take further action. We got started with the Groundwater Replenishment System in the early 1990s through the vision of the board of directors, who believed that we needed to invest money to provide a reliable source of high-quality water into the groundwater basin. It was obvious that our source was going to be recycled water to create a truly sustainable groundwater basin.

We began pilot testing innovative wastewater treatment technologies in the mid-1990s, such as microfiltration as a pre-treatment to reverse osmosis. We also piloted UV-light with hydrogen peroxide, and that became the treatment for our groundwater replenishment system.

What has OCWD done in the last two decades to stay on the cutting edge?

Our initial project in the mid-1990s led to 70 million gallons a day of recycled water being returned to the groundwater basin by 2008. Then, only about six months later, our board turned right around and pushed to begin our initial expansion.

We built expandability into the project from the beginning, so that we could ultimately reach 130 million gallons per day. We designed and constructed the first expansion to increase our facility by a 30 million gallon increment, bringing our total to 100 million gallons a day.  By May of 2015, we were online and producing 100 million gallons a day—enough water for about 850,000 people in our service area.

The big news is that our board recently approved moving forward with our final expansion. In September, the board took the bold step of moving towards our 130 million gallons per day target. In the first quarter of 2017, we will be issuing design RFPs, and we will hopefully start design by the middle of 2017.

As of right now, we are projecting that in five or six years we will be producing 130 millions gallons of recycled water per day, and our facility will be at full capacity. By 2023, we project to be producing enough water for about a million people.

Address the evolution of reverse osmosis technologies over the course of your 25 years in the field. What processes is OCWD utilizing currently, and what technologies are you considering for the next phase?

In the mid-1970s, reverse osmosis was in its infancy. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the technology was originally envisioned not much before and was just being incorporated into use. We have been fairly renowned for having a research department, and they have done significant research on wastewater materials.

Originally, we used a technology called cellulose acetate for the membrane material, and were operating at pressures around 800 psi (pounds per square inch). This was purely on wastewater, which has a low total dissolved solid content. 800 psi is very high pressure. Over the past ten to fifteen years, we have seen a transformation to a new material—a polyamide material—that allows us to operate at 150 to 200 psi. This equates to major energy savings.

We continue to look at new technologies and materials being tested. Graphene is something that many individuals have been using for membrane technology, and we might be able to see another 20 percent of electricity savings through the use of this technology.

What led Orange County to rely on recycling and to turn to indirect potable reuse of water?

Although I’d like to think that it is because we are smarter and bolder than everyone else, it really boils down to geography. With this huge groundwater basin, we had the capacity to store and inject millions of gallons of water. It just made sense to do this project on a large scale.

The lack of groundwater basins has held back other places in Southern California. In San Diego, they have very small groundwater basins. If San Diego wanted to recycle more water, they would have to do non-potable reuse—commonly referred to as purple pipe—where you reuse the water for golf courses and greenbelts.

Ours is considered indirect potable reuse. We have an environmental buffer—a groundwater basin—and the regulations that are in place support indirect potable reuse through natural recharge in groundwater basins. Another type of indirect potable reuse is reservoir augmentation, where we utilize the same treatment process, put the water in a surface reservoir, and ultimately deliver it as potable water to customers.

We are starting to see many other cities and agencies turn towards indirect potable reuse as an alternate supply for their potable systems.

Who manages the use of the groundwater in Orange County?


We’re governed by a 10-member board of directors, and we are a special district created by the state legislature.

Our board of directors has the authority to set the amount of pumping through a basin production percentage for the total percentage that can be pumped as groundwater. Currently, the basin production percentage is 75 percent. The board also sets the replenishment assessment.

We charge our retail member agencies for pumping groundwater—it does not come for free. It comes for $402 an acre-foot. We use that money to build our water recycling projects and sustain the yield of the groundwater basin. 

This issue of TPR includes interviews with Felicia Marcus of the State Water Resources Control Board and John Laird of the Natural Resources Agency, which focus on the macro-level view of water sustainability. How does a water district work to achieve the state’s goals of reliable, cost-effective water? Is supporting the DeltaFix a part of your work?

We are charged with adequately managing our groundwater basin. If we are overdrafting our basin—that is to say we are pulling more water out than we are putting back in—we have the ability to lower the amount of pumping to slow down the rate of overdraft.

The balancing act of managing our groundwater basin has a direct impact on our retail agencies. If we curtail their purchases, they are forced to purchase more imported water from the Metropolitan Water District. The cost of groundwater ($402 per acre-foot) is significantly lower than the cost of treated, imported water from MWD, which is roughly $1,000 an acre-foot.

It is incumbent upon us to keep high pumping-levels in our groundwater basin without severely damaging the basin.

Seeing the water future for our region holistically, our board of directors has entered into a term sheet with Poseidon Water to purchase water from what would be a 50-million gallon per day seawater desalination facility in the city of Huntington Beach. Right now, we are studying that project and staff is working through distribution options for our service area. Our board realizes that we have to look at a water portfolio. Right now, we are looking at a relative cost for that desal water of about $1700-1800 per acre-foot.

In terms of the governor’s plans for ensuring a resilient water conveyance mechanism, Orange County is supportive of the DeltaFix. When you look at the total water picture and how we move water around the state, we need to have DeltaFix as a part of that puzzle.

How did the state drought regulations, and now the relaxing of those regulations, impact your district’s management of the groundwater basin?

During the drought, people used less water and therefore less water was pumped out of the groundwater basin. Even during the drought, we were able to maintain our pumping levels at 75 percent without overdrafting the groundwater basin. Because we deal on a percentage, the less that is used, the less water is pumped out of the basin.

During the drought we were hit in the pocketbook. We had to raise our rates to make up for the loss of revenue. We raised our rates from $322 per acre-foot to $402 per acre-foot in one year. Loss of sales was the main reason for that increase.

What has the drought’s ramifications meant for California to you and the professionals in your world?

I think it has meant that we all have to look at our operations more carefully. It certainly affects our planning efforts into the future. Right now we are doing a reliability study in Orange County, and we are seeing that we might not need to anticipate for increased water demand.

Even with urban infill growth, water efficiency is increasing and demands continue to decrease. 20 years from now, demand might not be much more than it is currently. We are going to keep the basin full and provide reliable water to our customers.

Elaborate on the level of agency collaboration in California, and more specifically, OCWD’s collaboration with the Water Replenishment District of Southern California. 

Through the WateReuse California organization, the level of collaboration and exchange has never been stronger. Most of the general mangers from agencies of recycled water throughout the state are members and many, including Robb Whittaker of the Water Replenishment District, are on the board of directors with me. West Basin Municipal in the South Bay, Eastern Municipal Water District in the Riverside County area, and LADWP are all part of the organization.

Our organization is very supportive and helpful to any agency that is pursuing a project, in terms of discussing the technology, ways to meet regulations, or just sharing our story for how we accomplished our goals.

Agencies are financing their projects in a mixture of ways though. We have historically relied on a program that is really catching on right now: the state revolving fund. For our first project, we were fortunate to receive $92 million in government grant funding. We received $67 million from an early water bond that was known as Prop 13, $20 million from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Title 16 program for recycled water projects, and  $5 million from the State Water Resources Control Board. That $92 million helped us to finance a $481 million project.

The state revolving fund—or SRF program—originates in the federal government who gives grants to the states to build an infrastructure bank. We use the SRF program as our primary means, as grant funding is very difficult to come by these days.

In our first expansion, we took out a $190 million loan at 1.8 percent interest. We are able to borrow at half what we could, if we went into the market (and we are an AAA, triple-rated agency). We continually see that the SRF is our lowest cost of financing.

Lastly, post-election, there’s been speculation of President-Elect Trump championing a National Infrastructure Bank that would work much like the California Infrastructure Bank (IBank). How valuable is the IBank?

I would say that not only OCWD, but also a lot of other agencies in the wastewater and water worlds have benefited from the IBank.

I believe that the SRF bank currently has about $6 billion in loans in California, and are almost fully subscribed. In fact, within the last year the Sacramento Regional Water Authority received a $1.5-billion SRF loan. A lot of agencies are waking up and realizing that this is an actual means of financing projects for public agencies.


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