Conservation & Science

A new water source for the Monterey Peninsula that safeguards the sea

Gazing out over the ocean from the deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with an expansive view of harbor seals, shorebirds and the occasional humpback whale, you could easily overlook this simple, almost banal truth: water is life.

Monterey Peninsula communities are under a state order to take less water from the Carmel River.

It’s a point underscored in recent years for residents of the Monterey Peninsula, who have long depended on water drawn from the Carmel River. They’re now facing a cease-and-desist order from the State Water Resources Control Board that aims to leave more water in the river, which is home to federally threatened steelhead trout.

This means the area needs a new daily source of millions of gallons of potable water—an exacting demand. Some proposed solutions have centered on turning seawater into drinking water, much as the Aquarium does with its own tiny desal plant.

But to supply thousands of homes and businesses around the Peninsula, another idea is surfacing. And it could relieve some of the demand for large-scale desalination, and the energy it will take to pull salt from seawater, by proving more practical and economical.

The new source: recycled wastewater.

Putting aside the mental hurdles of  turning sewage into tap water, such an approach stands to benefit not just thirsty humans on the Monterey Peninsula, but also marine life in Monterey Bay. Could this project signal the future of water?

A collaborative approach

The water recycling effort, known as Pure Water Monterey, is a project of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District and Monterey One Water (formerly Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency), where Paul Sciuto is general manager.

Construction on the Pure Water Monterey project has begun, and the first water could flow to customers in 2019. Photo courtesy Monterey One Water

The $100 million project, which broke ground in May, initially aims to produce 3,500 acre-feet of drinking water each year—roughly enough to serve 15,000 to 20,000 households on the water-short Monterey Peninsula. If it stays on schedule, it will deliver its first drinking water to customers of California-American Water Co. sometime in 2019.

Paul takes a big-picture approach when people cringe at the thought of drinking recycled wastewater. He points out that, to some extent, all water is recycled. Indeed, water presently coursing through your veins may have journeyed over the eons through dinosaurs, glaciers and inexorable processions of clouds.

“It’s all just water out there,” he says.”

Wells in aquifers, like this one in Seaside, will deliver the new water to municipal supply systems.

There’s potable water, stormwater, farm irrigation water. It’s a fixed amount, he notes.

“In the water industry, there’s this concept of ‘One Water’,” Paul says. “There’s only one water out there, it’s just what you do with it. We’re taking that to heart. We have the technology to treat the water.”

With that in mind, he invokes another industry saying: “We’re going to judge the water not by its history, but by its quality.”

Cognitive cleansing

California’s drought spurred state officials to craft new rules to encourage various levels of wastewater recycling, including direct potable reuse, where wastewater enters a plant through sewer lines on one side, and emerges ready to drink on the other.

Pure Water Monterey, by contrast, plans an intermediate step—pumping highly treated water into a groundwater aquifer and letting it sit underground for a few months before anyone uses it. Paul says this “environmental buffer” is similar to the large-scale—and very successful—groundwater replenishment project in Orange County. (By “large scale”, we’re talking 100 million gallons of water a day.)

One advantage of the added step, Paul says, to do with public perception: “People are like ‘Hold it, this is sewage, what are you doing?’ But if you put it in the ground for six months, they’re like ‘Oh, that’s groundwater.’”

Environmental benefits

In a unique twist, the Pure Water Monterey project will also capture and use water in and around  Salinas Valley farms. The fertile Salinas Valley—”The Salad Bowl of the World”—is where billions of dollars worth of lettuce and other produce is grown, harvested, processed and packaged every year. Millions of gallons of water are used each day in those processes—water that is currently not being recycled, but ultimately could be reused.

Irrigation runoff from the Salinas Valley will contribute to the project, keeping potential contaminants from flowing to Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy USDA

“To my knowledge, we’re the first to use agricultural runoff as well as agricultural-industrial washwater” to supplement drinking water supplies, Paul says.

Capturing, treating and ultimately utilizing such water makes for a win-win because it removes agricultural contaminants that would otherwise flow untreated into Monterey Bay.

“If we can take some—not all, but some—of those contaminants out, then we’re all better for it, and we’ll have a new water source,” Paul says.

And there’s the matter of energy—a key consideration when the impacts of climate change are being felt more each day. Desalination requires lots of power to pump seawater from an intake line and then through a series of fine filters at extremely high pressure to remove salts so it’s drinking-water quality. Paul argues that the planned wastewater recycling plant will require a fraction of the energy and—kilowatt per kilowatt—will produce more drinkable water.

“If we’re able to recycle more water, then maybe the desal plant will operate less , making the carbon footprint of our community smaller,” Paul explains.

Inspiring conservation

That vision aligns with the spirit of Monterey Bay Aquarium, says Public Affairs Director Barbara Meister: “At its core, the whole project is about water conservation and reuse. That’s central to our values as a conservation organization.”

Tourism is an economic pillar in Monterey County, one that relies on a stable water supply.

Barbara also notes that water is the lifeblood for the Peninsula’s hospitality industry—a critical piece of the regional economy.

“About half of our visitors stay overnight, either at hotels or friends’ houses,” she says. “They’re users of water as well.”

Ensuring a sustainable water supply is just as essential to the health of the tourism economy as keeping roads open and the lights on.

As Pure Water Monterey begins to purify contaminated agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater, replenish aquifers and deliver potable water to thousands of households, it can demonstrate a new approach that other water-short communities could emulate.

“What’s going on here can definitely be a model for other parts of the state,” Barbara says, “and maybe other parts of the country.”

Perhaps we’ll find the “Future of Water” in our own backyard.

—Daniel Potter

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