May 17 2014
Ahhhh! The high Sierras where the water is sweet, clear and cold. Open a
faucet in Truckee, California to enjoy a refreshing glass of that marvelous
refreshing liquid, direct from the melting snow of the surrounding
mountains. Wrong! Well, partially wrong.
Near the Truckee Airport is a facility called the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitary District Water
Reclamation Plant. This is a wastewater treatment facility that accepts the
sewage from the District of the same name. Ten million gallons a day are
treated using a tertiary process. In effect, the effluent from this plant is
drinking water quality water. It is then injected into wells
located in the Truckee area where it mixes with the underlying aquifer.
Water supply wells pump that water to a water tank connected to the City of
Truckee water system. This pristine area has the highest water standards in the nation.
It is true the aquifer is supplied by snow-fed springs, but horror of
horrors, the water is mixed with water that has been in the toilets of the
people in Truckee. How long has this been going on? The plant was opened in
1977 , was expanded from its five MGD capacity, and has been operating ever since.
How do I know this? I led thestartup team that put the plant into operation after the Webb-University
Joint Venture built the plant from design plans by CH2M-Hill. No,
Webb-University is not a school. It was a joint venture between the Del Webb
Company in Phoenix and San Diego’s University Mechanical and Engineering
What I cannot fathom is why after thirty-seven years there is still
discussion about the relative merits of indirect potable recycling (IPR).
When the subject comes up, as it did recently when I was in an email
discussion with a Southern California municipal water engineer, the statement is
made, “well, we need the State and Federal regulations to catch up with
technology.” Last time I looked, Truckee was still in California. So they
could do IPR in 1977, but similar municipalities can’t do it now? Hundreds of
thousands of times the Tahoe-Truckee water has made the loop from the water
tank in Truckee, into the homes and businesses of that area, into the
toilets, down the drain to the wastewater plant and back into the aquifer.
California’s record-breaking drought wears on. People talk about finding new
sources of water, even pipelines from the Northwest. Desalination plants are
a hot topic, but environmentalists do not favor putting a straw into the sea
for a variety of reasons, among them the issue of what to do with the high
saline effluent, high energy uses and fish kill that occurs at the inlet to
the plants. But as Wichita Falls, Texas officials found out when they put
together an IPR facility, plain old ignorance rears its ugly head and people
gag at the mention of drinking water that has come through toilets at one
point. Apparently the Federal government has no qualms about the regulations
for IPR, and Texas doesn’t either.
When the taps are dry and the toilets don’t flush, perhaps people will wake
up. Maybe not. But one fact is sure. The residents in the Tahoe-Truckee area
and Wichita Falls will have sufficient water when other communities are
whining about running out of water, and petitioning the Federal and State
governments to rescue them.