In the opening scene of the 1995 post-apocalyptic action film Waterworld, the character played by Kevin Costner pours his urine into a makeshift filter, pumps out some liquid and gulps it all down. His thirst is quenched and he looks intensely satisfied. The viewer is meant to feel disgusted – and also jolted to the imagined reality of a world that has suffered total ecological collapse due to extreme sea-level rise.
From a scientific standpoint, sewage water can, at a moderate cost, be treated and recycled back into the drinking supply. And in Monterey County, there’s a plan to do just that within the next few months.
But how to overcome the ick-factor? For the region’s sewage recycling project, known as Pure Water Monterey, part of the answer is to host public demonstrations of its water purification technology.
On a recent Friday morning, Pure Water Monterey’s public outreach coordinator, Rachel Gaudoin, leads a tour of about 35 people at the project facility on the outskirts of Marina. One of the agencies behind the project hired Gaudoin last year and it’s easy to see why. She is personable and good at public speaking – better than some of the veteran hydrologists and administrators on staff who tend to talk in jargon.
In a conference room, she starts by describing the kind of wastewater that will reach the recycling plant. “These four sources mix together to become one water,” Gaudoin explains – municipal sewage, wash water from produce packing operations in the Salinas Valley, agricultural runoff and, in winter, storm drainage.
“To really bring it all together it helps to see it,” Gaudoin says as she guides everyone outside and through a warehouse door into a room with machines stacked against a wall all the way to the ceiling, a jumble of tubes and tanks, electric boxes and monitors. “We are at the demonstration facility which is a mini replica of the full-scale facility at 230 times less flow,” she says.
Gaudoin begins to go through the process of what’s known as advanced water purification. It’s referred to as “advanced” because the water reaching the new facility will already have gone through conventional sewage filtering. As the crowd focuses on her and the props she’s holding, a colleague of Gaudoin’s is at the opposite end of the room, at the group’s back. He turns on two ordinary kitchen faucets and lets them run. The burbling sound of water in the background, is it meant to soothe? Or maybe to gesture at abundance? (For me, it was stressful to think of the waste.)
The first machine treats the water with ozone, a disinfectant that kills bacteria and other pathogens. Then comes membrane filtration. The water is squeezed through pores and each of them is “300 times thinner than a human hair,” Gaudoin says. Step three is called reverse osmosis, another filter. But with this one, “the pores are so small that even with the highest-grade optical microscope, you would not be able to see them.” (Whole Foods sells reverse osmosis water for .49 cents a gallon.) Then there’s one final measure. The water is treated with hydrogen peroxide in the presence of ultraviolet light, which can break up any remaining chemical bonds.
Now it’s time to taste. On the counter above the running faucets, there are six clear gas containers. Each is holding water sampled from different stages of the purification process. The water in the first glass is a repulsive brown. The next water sample is yellowish and the third is already mostly clear. By the sixth one, which is drawn from the faucets, the water is crystal clear.
Plastic cups of Pure Water Monterey-grade H2O are passed out to the group.
People are standing around with their cups in hand, chatting in couples or impromptu groups. Eyes narrow, lips pucker from concentration, tongues swish water around. The impression is of any River Road or Carmel Valley wine tasting event.
“Today it tastes more acidic than it usually does,” says Melodie Chrislock, a proponent of recycled water who helps recruit visitors to the facility through her group Public Water Now. “You have got a more sensitive palate than mine,” someone says in response to Chrislock. Another says it tastes too pure and that minerals should be added to match the grittiness of regular tap water. There is no such thing as a water sommelier but there probably could be, considering the widely divergent opinions on the flavor. For me, the flavor of the water was as clean as any I have ever had.
Ironically, the water produced by the facility will not reach consumers, at least not directly. California law requires that the recycled be reinjected into the groundwater basin. Only months later, after it has thoroughly mixed with whatever else is in the environment can it be pumped out and distributed.