Demystifying Water Infrastructure Q&A

Water makes its way through rivers, reservoirs, groundwater recharge basins and a labyrinth of water infrastructure before it reaches our homes and is ready for us to simply turn on the tap. From sourcing to treatment, the clean, safe tap water that flows straight to the tap is held to the highest standards.

The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority’s (SAWPA) regional partners deliver the high-quality tap water that plays a crucial role in our daily lives. This month, we sat down with SAWPA’s Water Resources and Planning Manager Mark Norton for an education session about water infrastructure.

Q & A with Mark Norton

What is exciting about your work in the water world?

I’ve spent 31 years in the water industry and am now involved with the One Water One Watershed (OWOW) program, round tables and task forces. We work together with many agencies, nonprofits, regulatory bodies and communities to implement programs and water infrastructure projects for a sustainable watershed. It is exciting to be part of the big picture and work to ensure people who live here can have access to safe and clean tap water for generations to come.

What is SAWPA’s role with water delivery?

SAWPA is the voice of the Santa Ana watershed. As a joint powers authority, SAWPA covers the service area of our five member agencies and facilitates collaboration between them. We bring many parties together to help our water agencies meet regulations, address concerns and protect resources set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.

What is a watershed and water cycle?

A watershed is a geographic area that covers the natural drainage of water from a high to low elevation in a cycle. The boundaries of a watershed are typically the highest along mountain ridges at the top, to the lowest point where gravity carries it to a river, lake or reservoir. Once water collects at the lowest point, evaporation occurs and it turns into clouds of water vapor, which create precipitation that falls across the watershed again in a cycle. Thomas Jefferson might have had that same glass of water molecules that you are drinking today. Same with the dinosaurs. There is no new water—it is all part of one big cycle.

What is water infrastructure?

Water infrastructure is a broad topic: it is the vast network of aqueducts, pipes, reservoirs, facilities, and equipment that move water through our watershed, and the programs that help us secure a safe, reliable water supply. It supplies our water, whether by pumping groundwater to the surface, importing water from the California aqueduct, or bolstering snowmelt with our Weather Modification Pilot Program. It helps make our water safe with water treatment plants and facilitates testing. Water infrastructure also makes up the pipelines that deliver water to locations throughout our society – homes, businesses, schools, parks, and even lakes and rivers.

How does water infrastructure help make recycled water safe?

Our water infrastructure treats wastewater with the most stringent treatment process in the industry. It goes through filtration, disinfection (often with ultraviolet light) and reverse osmosis. Although the water has to be tested to ensure it is safe for drinking at that point, it is instead used to recharge groundwater basins. Underground, water is further filtered naturally before it reaches our wells, which are pumped and treated again to become tap water. Because we treat wastewater with multiple barriers, have safeguards in place, and test to EPA standards, it can be trusted as a quality source of water.

What is a common misconception people have about water infrastructure?

A common misconception is that our infrastructure needs to remove every detected thing. We can now detect things in water (constituents) at the parts per trillion nanogram level, which is about one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Even though we can detect to this level, that does not mean we need to remove it. These constituents are already all around us, in things like food dyes, personal care products and soaps. Not only can removing them have adverse environmental impacts and be extremely costly, but just about every constituent you can think of that the EPA regulates will always have a level that is determined safe by long-term epidemiological studies. As technology advances, new regulations can arise. SAWPA helps its member agencies maintain safe levels for our tap water by ensuring these additional regulations are met through grant funding and project administration.

What is SAWPA doing to help keep water infrastructure in shape for smaller agencies?

The water infrastructure that smaller agencies in lower-income communities rely on – such as pumps for wells, water tanks or pipelines – deteriorate over time and might go unreplaced. Because these smaller agencies might not have the needed financial resources or adequate staffing, and do not want to raise rates on low-income customers, their infrastructure can continue to suffer. We recently worked with our member agencies to create a program for nonprofits to reach out to these agencies and help them with grant writing, so the agencies can compete more effectively for grants to fund necessary infrastructure upkeep and produce clean water in their service area. It solidifies the truth that we have one water, in one watershed, and we are all in this together.

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