As general manager of the Orange County (Calif.) Water District, Mike Markus is well known for his expertise in successfully implementing large projects and water resources management. In October, he sat down with Brown and Caldwell’s Chief Technical Officer Cindy Paulson, Ph.D., P.E., to talk about the early challenges of the award-winning Ground Water Replenishment System, how two agencies came together to make something great happen, and the next steps in advancing potable reuse.
You have been a true leader in water reuse: GWRS is the world’s largest water purification system for indirect potable reuse, it has received more than 40 industry awards, and has been recognized nationally and internationally. Looking back, what was “the moment” that defined your experience working on GWRS?
I think probably the defining moment for me was shortly after I was appointed as the program manager to oversee the entire program. We were at a point where the board was considering its go/no-go decision. We had completed preliminary design and I had to give that presentation before the combined boards of the Orange County Sanitation District and the Orange County Water District, which was 35 people. And it was a very long, complete presentation on the economics of what we were doing and why we thought we should be doing it. It was very challenging for me because I hadn’t really been thrust into that role before. But it came out very well, obviously both boards supported the project and we were able to move forward.
Did you have any folks who really had major concerns or real opposition at that time? Because you were certainly paving the way then.
Our story, a lot of times, seems like it’s all rosy but there were a lot of challenges moving forward. Just proceeding with a project as large as it was, using the newer technologies, building a 70 mgd plant right out of the gate, meant we’d either win big time or fail big time and we weren’t about to accept failure as an option.
A few representatives from our retail water agencies thought we were moving ahead a little too fast. At that time, our projected costs were roughly equal to the cost of replenishment water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, so there was an argument that, “Well, we can buy 72,000 acre-feet of Met water instead of producing the 72,000 acre-feet of recycled water so we should do that.” Of course, it turned out to be a good decision. We can produce our recycled water at half the cost of Met untreated water today. But we had to address that issue.
There were some who thought the plant should not be as large, that it should be half the size, that it should be 35 million gallons, which is the amount of water we wanted to inject in the barrier. But in order to keep the sanitation district in the game and keep their financial contribution, we had to assure them that we could meet their peak wet weather events. That meant we had to build the plant to 70 million gallons, so if there was a peak wet weather event, we could turn up flux on the microfiltration and we could treat 100 million gallons for a short amount of time.
Do you think your public is unique or that your approach was any different here? Because it seems to me that you have been at this for a very long time and your public is with you.
Really, I give all the credit to the board of directors at the time. We had our first meeting in 1997 of a joint committee of board members from the OCSD and the OCWD. And at that first meeting, and I remember it vividly, the board said one of the first things we have to do is hire an outreach consultant.
They realized, they had the vision to be able to identify what the key issue would be with the project. They weren’t as concerned with the engineering, which is interesting, they were more concerned about, “Will people accept it?” And if you think about it, it makes sense. If you’re going to invest a half a billion dollars on a project, you want to make sure that by the time it gets built you’re able to turn it on and utilize that facility.
So we hired an outreach firm, we did polling, we did focus groups, we developed messaging points, and we went out and we spread the word. We built this coalition of local leadership and elected officials and the environmental community, health and medical, and then gave 1,200 presentations over a 10-year period. And people ask well, “Was that it?” No. We’re continuing today with the same outreach and we give tours all the time, we go out in the community, and we educate as many stakeholders as possible.
There were two keys to success to this project. One was the outreach and the other was the partnership we had with the Orange County Sanitation District.
Let’s talk a little bit about the teaming of the two agencies. The GWRS has been an exceptional example of two agencies (OCWD and OCSD) coming together to make something great happen. How have you collaborated so effectively?
This is where a lot of other projects can go sideways. You must have a partnership between the agencies. We’re very fortunate in that our partnership goes back 40 years, to the 1970s. Because even back then, the OCSD was interested in recycling. They’ve always had that ethic at their organization.
They’ve gone to great lengths over the years to make changes in their project to improve the water quality of the secondary effluent, which makes it easier for us to recycle the water so we don’t have to go through as many backwash cycles, chemical cleanings on the microfiltration and likewise on the RO.
So we’ve had a great relationship. It was actually they who approached us on the project initially. They were having to look at building a second ocean outfall and we were looking at building a 35-million-gallon plant. The general managers got together and OCSD said to us, “Listen, if you build your project a little bit bigger, then we wouldn’t have to build that second ocean outfall and we’d be able to contribute the amount of money we would have spent on the outfall to that expanded project.” That was really the genesis of why we built the project as large as we did.
Is there any advice that you would offer up for others that are considering reuse?
Well, you have to develop the relationships between the two agencies and it starts at the staff level. Sometimes there’s a little parochialism, so hopefully you’re able to break that down. Sometimes we get a little territorial and so my advice would be to give in a little bit and try to make the relationship work. And I think you’re seeing that more and more. Case in point: MWD is looking at a very large 150-million-gallon facility with the L.A. County Sanitation District and I know that the agencies are working very well at the staff-to-staff level and even at the board-to-board level. We’re all engineers, we can figure the technology out, we’ve demonstrated that it works, so that’s almost become the easy part.
As a trail blazer in large-scale indirect potable reuse, what were some of the challenges in the early days that are no longer an issue?
Technology was definitely a unique challenge. We had been using reverse osmosis since the mid-‘70s so we had a pretty good feel for what it could do, but microfiltration was new to us and UV light was new to us, so we did a lot of piloting early on to make sure that the technologies worked and then incorporated them into the design. We kinda hoped that when we threw the switch everything would work. And luckily for us it did.
Now we’re very familiar with the technology. We’ve always had a very good in-house technical staff and we’ve got some superstars in the field. We’ve also developed the in-house capabilities to program our process control system. If something goes down, we don’t have to rely on an outside consultant and fly them in to troubleshoot something. We developed the expertise in-house to be able to keep the facility up and running at a very high-efficiency rate.
How has the vision of GWRS changed over the years, or has this vision remained unchanged?
I don’t know that the vision has really changed. The board of directors had a very clear vision as to what they wanted to do. And it was very brave on their part to be able to articulate that vision and then implement that vision.
We were coming out of a drought in the early ‘90s and they knew that the drought was reoccurring. They saw that we would need a reliable supply of water that was locally controlled and they just pushed that vision forward. They saw the value. They had the vision and they moved forward. And I think it’s a credit to them also that we’ve gone through an initial expansion so we’ve gone from 70 million gallons to 100 million gallons, as of last year, and they recently voted to move forward on the final expansion.
We will build to the ultimate capacity, which is 130 million gallons. And we’ll be there in 2022, so over the span of 14 years we’ll have built out the entire project.
During this time of heightened awareness around water scarcity, are we doing enough to gain broader public acceptance of reuse as a potable supply?
We’re starting to. I think as an industry we’ve done a very poor job of educating the public even where their water comes from. We turn on the tap, the water’s always there. People don’t realize what’s behind the tap. The distribution systems, the treatment, the aqueducts that had to be built, all the infrastructure behind it.
Within the last couple of years, the awareness has been heightened mainly due to the mandatory restrictions on water usage from the governor’s office. People are starting to think about water. We have been doing a lot of messaging as an industry about water, about the lack of water, about other sources of water that can be used to improve a geographic area’s water supply reliability, and that’s where the recycling comes in.
What do you see as the most important next steps in advancing potable reuse here in California?
Developing the regulations for direct potable reuse will be a game changer in California. Right now, we have the regs for groundwater, and we’ll soon have the regs for surface water augmentation, which will allow indirect potable reuse.
The definition of indirect potable reuse is that you have to have an environmental buffer like a groundwater basin or a surface water reservoir. Not everyone has that. We’re blessed because we have this huge groundwater basin and that’s one of the reasons we built the project as large as we did. We’re also right on the coast. We had a partner in the sanitation district so we can get rid of the brine. We had ideal conditions here in Orange County, that’s why we were able to do what we’ve done so far. But if you’re inland, brine disposal becomes an issue. If you don’t have a groundwater basin or a surface water storage, you have issues.
So I think DPR (direct potable reuse) will allow a lot of other agencies to look at reusing their water. And the state is moving along quite well, I think. The State Water Resources Control Board has until the end of this year to develop the regs on surface water augmentation, which they will meet. And also a framework for direct potable reuse and I believe they will meet that also. I’m hopeful that those regulations can be developed within a five-year time horizon. I just hope it doesn’t take the 20 or 25 years it took to develop the groundwater regulations. But I think that there’s enough of a push in the state and there’s enough interest with the state board to be able to move forward a little bit more quickly and allow others to recycle.
There’s still 1.3 billion gallons per day that’s being dumped into the Pacific Ocean just in Southern California, so there does exist the opportunity to be able to develop more projects.
What’s next for OCWD after GWRS?
Well, we’re groundwater managers first and foremost. The whole reason we got into recycled water was to find a secure source of supply to the groundwater basin, kind of a drought-proof type of supply, and we’ve done that.
So I think we’ll continue to look for reliable sources of water, possibly look into different options to expand our water portfolio. Our board is looking at maybe being involved in some ocean desalination. We would also be receiving some of the water from Carson. We purchase about 65,000 acre-feet of firm untreated water from Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and, if the Carson project moves forward, we would replace that untreated water with recycled water. Which is a lot more reliable and of better quality.
Currently, our retail water agencies pump 75 percent of their total water demands as groundwater, which means they only have to purchase 25 percent from them. That’s a benefit for them. And right now the cost of groundwater is somewhere between a third and a half, substantially cheaper than Met water. So we want to maintain that, we want to have a reliable supply at the lowest cost for our retail water agencies, so we’ll need to develop those projects that help us do that whether it’s stormwater capture, additional recharge basins or other outside sources of water. I think we’ll be exploring those.
The recycled water that we produce is near distilled quality and when we put it back into the groundwater basin it’s actually a higher quality than the groundwater that we’re mixing it with. In fact, we see an improvement in the water quality over time. Our groundwater basin is about 500 parts per million TDS and the water we’re putting in is about 80 parts. That is a tremendous benefit that often I overlook.
What’s next for you?
Well I’m hopeful I’ll be able to complete the final expansion [of GWRS]. I would certainly like to be around to be able to do that. I don’t see myself ever really retiring. I love what I do and I’ve spent 28 years here at the district and if I spend another six, that’ll be a nice career and I’ll pass the baton to someone else but remain involved in the industry.