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A Report on OCWA’s January 2020
Industry Insight Presentation

Swimming in Recycled Water

By Tim Hogan
OCWA Communications

It wasn’t so long ago, a common warning posted for recycled water cautioned not to touch it. Today, the warning may advise that, for safety’s sake, you swim in it with a buddy.

This remarkable turn of events was the subject of OCWA’s January Industry Insight presentation. In a lively discussion, Santa Margarita Water District’s Deputy General Manager, Don Bunts, and Chief Engineer Tricia Butler, provided remarkable insight into recent improvements at Lake Mission Viejo, “California’s First Recycled Water Swimming Lake.”

Speaking before another capacity crowd, the two speakers took turns addressing the various issues – both political and technical – that went into development of this national award-winning project.

As with so many recent developments in the water industry, it began with a drought. Two droughts, actually. The one in the mid-seventies, when Lake Mission Viejo was first filled, and our most recent drought, when the State began to seriously clamp down on potable water use. Controversial from the start, Lake Mission Viejo met with serious opposition statewide in the ’70s for its use of precious drinking water to fill a recreational lake. In the decades that followed, the controversy never ebbed, and in 2015, when drought was foremost in everyone’s mind, the State imposed substantial reductions in the use of potable water.

Lake Mission Viejo was on the verge of drying up.

SMWD proposed a radical solution. Within 9 months, the District would design, build, and put into operation an Advanced Treated Water Facility that would provide recycled water for the Lake clean enough for swimming. And there’d be enough water to maintain the Lake’s level year-round. Furthermore, there’d be no algae blooms, and total dissolved solids would be vastly reduced.

It was an ambitious, unprecedented plan. And the citizens around the Lake loved it. By unanimous acclaim, every precinct in the LMV Home Owners’ Association voted in favor of swimming in recycled water.

Under the gun, with less than a year to complete the project, SMWD sought advantage in every step of the process. For the design/build, the District chose to do most of it themselves. To further hold costs down, and help speed construction, the District purchased equipment “as new” from a defunct Colorado fracking concern. They then pre-set the pipes and equipment before tilting-up the buildings around them.

Luck played a role as well. The District already had land next to the Lake that they could use for the new Facility. And fortunately, an abandoned pipeline connected the site to the Lake, so there was no need to tear up Alicia Parkway, which would have added time and seriously disrupted the neighborhood.

To pay for it all, SMWD formed a unique partnership with the City, the LMV Association, and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to cobble together a remarkable agreement built on a mix of grants, low interest loans, and shared costs. And to avoid impacting all of the City residents’ utility bills, the LMVA Home Owners Association agreed to pay for all the water used in the Lake that largely benefited only them.

What they created was remarkable: the first lake in California — if not the nation — fed by recycled water in which people could swim. Designed to produce up to 600 acre-feet per year of treated recycled water, the Water Facility’s treatment processes include ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet-light disinfection. Where the Lake had previously used a blend of 91% imported potable water, and 9% recycled water for irrigation, it now uses 99% recycled water for all purposes, irrigation as well as swimming and boating. And the Lake continues to look and smell as pure and unadulterated as it always has.

Most importantly, the residents love it. Aside from some minor aesthetic issues during construction, there has been no backlash or complaints about the water treatment plant or the use of recycled water in the Lake. All this, and there’s been a savings of up to 98 million gallons of drinking water every year.

•    •     •

OCWA was proud to host this very informative talk by Don Bunts and Tricia Butler. Building on a year of exceptionally well-received Industry Insight presentations, they helped get 2020 off to a great start. This is in keeping with the Board of Director’s commitment to provide quality, timely information for the Association’s members.

For those interested, a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation is available for download by OCWA’s members only. Yet another great reason to consider becoming a member if you aren’t one already.

Next month’s Industry Insight promises to be equally enlightening. South Coast Water District’s Director of Operations, Joe McDivitt, will return to provide an update on the District’s massive, multi-year effort to stabilize and upgrade its coastal tunnel system. Further details will be available soon. But plan now to attend. And make a note to make reservations early: the last few presentations have seen capacity crowds fill the room. You won’t want to miss out!

See you February 19!


Photo of Lake Mission Viejo California by D Ramey Logan, CC-BY-SA 3.0


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