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Conquering the ‘yuck’ factor: For many people, water flowing from toilet to tap may be hard to swallow

FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. – Water spilled out of a spigot, sparklingly clear, into a plastic cup. Just 45 minutes earlier, it was effluent, piped over from Orange County’s wastewater treatment plant next door. At a specialized plant, it then went through several stages of purification that left it cleaner than anything that flows out of a home faucet or comes in a brand-name bottle.

“It’s stripped down to the H, 2 and O,” said Mike Markus, the general manager of the county water district. He was not exaggerating. Without the minerals that give most cities’ supply a distinctive flavor, this water tastes of nothing.

As California scrambles for ways to cope with its crippling drought and the mandatory water restrictions imposed last month by Gov. Jerry Brown, an array of ideas that were long dismissed as too controversial, expensive or unpleasant are getting a second look. One is to conserve more water. Another is to turn nearby and abundant sources of water, like the Pacific Ocean, into drinking water through desalination. Yet another is to recycle the water residents have already used. And therein lies a marketing challenge that can be even greater than the technological one.

Water recycling is common for uses like irrigation; purple pipes in many California towns deliver water to golf courses, zoos and farms. At a more grass-roots level, activists encourage residents to save “gray water” from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines to water their plants and gardens.

Enticing people to drink recycled water, however, requires getting past what experts call the “yuck” factor. Efforts in the 1990s to develop water reuse in San Diego and Los Angeles were beaten back by activists who denounced what they called, devastatingly, “toilet to tap.” Los Angeles built a $55 million purification plant in the 1990s, but never used it to produce drinking water; the water goes to irrigation instead.

But with the special purification plant, which has been operating since 2008, Orange County swung people to the idea of drinking recycled water. The county does not run its purified water directly into drinking water treatment plants; instead, it sends the water underground to replenish the area’s aquifers and to be diluted by the natural water supply. This environmental buffer seems to provide an emotional buffer for consumers as well.

The $481 million plant opened during a previous drought. “It made us look like geniuses,” Markus said. The timing is right again. In the midst of the current drought, the county has completed a $142 million expansion that will increase capacity by more than 40 percent, to 100 million gallons a day, and at a fraction of the cost of importing water or desalinating seawater.

“The difference between this and 2000 is everyone wants this to happen,” said Marty Adams, who heads the water system for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The inevitable squeamishness over drinking water that was once waste ignores a fundamental fact, said George Tchobanoglous, an expert in water reuse and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis: “When it comes down to it, water is water. Everyone who lives downstream on a river is drinking recycled water.”

The processes at Orange County include microfiltration that strains out anything larger than 0.2 microns, removing almost all suspended solids, bacteria and protozoa. After that comes reverse osmosis, which involves forcing the water across a membrane, which removes other impurities, including viruses, pharmaceuticals and dissolved minerals. A zap with powerful ultraviolet light and a bit of hydrogen peroxide disinfects further and neutralizes other small chemical compounds.