By Tina Richards

Sewage may well be Orange County’s version of black gold. Ever since the Orange County Water District began transforming sewage into potable water at its state-of-the-art Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS), one man’s waste has become another’s treasure. 

The reclamation plant receives treated sewage from the sanitation district, purifies it and returns about 90 percent of it (some 70 million gallons per day) back into the aquifer that rests beneath north and central Orange County.  The aquifer provides about 70 percent of the water consumed in East Orange, Villa Park, North Tustin and OPA.  A recent expansion at the plant allows the facility to recycle 100 million gallons per day, but right now, there isn’t enough waste flowing through county sewer systems to keep the plant operating at full capacity.

And that’s one more reason why residents serviced by Area 7 of the county sewer system want to keep it under local control and make sure their sewage continues flowing into the county’s GRS. 

Waste not, want not
Area 7 encompasses portions of Tustin, unincorporated North Tustin, Lemon Heights, Cowan Heights, Panorama Heights and El Modena (a county island within Orange). The system is currently operated by the OC Sanitation District, but that agency no longer wants to maintain small local systems, preferring to concentrate on large regional sewer lines.  The sanitation district board voted last year to offer Area 7 to the East Orange County Water District (EOCWD), because the sewer system footprint mirrors that agency’s service area.  EOCWD wants to take it on, as does the Irvine Ranch Water District, which has its own reclamation facilities in Irvine and Lake Forest.  Most of IRWD’s recycled water goes to South County, which has no aquifer and depends 100 percent on imported water.

It is up to the Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) to decide which agency – EOCWD, IRWD or county sanitation – will oversee the 7,777-acre sewer system.  LAFCO has held two public hearings and one public meeting on the topic.  Another public outreach is slated for October  28.

So far, the community is standing behind EOCWD.  The cities of Orange, Tustin and the Foothill Communities Association have written letters in support of the Orange-based water company, as have individuals served by Area 7.  Until recently, that support was based on “local control.”  That is, Area 7 customers believe they would be better served by the agency that already works in and knows the community.  IRWD provides water to nearby OPA, but its headquarters are in Irvine, and much of its customer base is in South County.

A gray area
The value of Area 7’s sewage came up during the Sept. 9 LAFCO public hearing.  North Tustin resident John Sears cited his concerns that IRWD could channel waste from Area 7 to its own reclamation plants and send that recycled water to South County.  He reported that some five to six million gallons of wastewater is sent from Area 7 to the GRS every day.  Keeping the aquifer replenished reduces the need to purchase more expensive imported water.  Sears emphasized the community’s desire to keep Area 7 sewage under local control. “With EOCWD managing the system,” he said, “the groundwater replenishment process would be uninterrupted.  You can help us keep our local water local.”

IRWD says it has no plans to change the existing sewage flow, and will negotiate an agreement with county sanitation on that issue.  The details and time frame of that yet-to-be agreement are unknown. 

Augmenting the community’s concern that its sewage may end up in Irvine, and not be reclaimed to benefit North County, was the revelation that some of Area 7’s sewage already goes to Irvine.  Apparently, some years ago OC Sanitation and IRWD made a trade that allowed some of Area 7 flows to go to Irvine, in exchange for flows from another part of Irvine going to the GRS.  It doesn’t happen all the time, but IRWD is able to pump sewage from Area 7 to its recycling facility when it needs more water. 

Since that portion of Area 7 was never annexed to IRWD, EOCWD is looking into the possibility that those flows could be returned to the county’s GRS.

Locals aim to keep control of wastewater