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Model Water Recycling Plant Helps Los Angeles - 2003-05-09

Californians are being forced to think about how they use their water, as population growth strains limited supplies in one of the driest parts of the United States. A model water recycling plant is helping the region meet its needs, while creating a garden spot in the heart of the suburbs.

In the San Fernando northwest of Los Angeles, a water reclamation plant removes the waste from sewer water. Sewage treatment is an unpleasant but necessary business. But this is a treatment plant with a difference, says engineer Kook Dean, who says wastewater from homes and factories has been used to create a setting of natural beauty.

First, he says, the sewage is cleaned with chemicals, filters and helpful bacteria to remove the waste. After a three-stage process, the water is clean. "It's drinking water standard. The water is that good. The water is then taken out to three lakes located in the valley, the Japanese Garden, The Wildlife Lake and Lake Balboa," he says.

At the Wildlife Lake, recycled water has created a mecca for birds and animals such as swallows, geese and ducks, and even coyotes. Lake Balboa is a popular recreational spot for human visitors, especially boaters. And the area offers quiet paths for hikers.

But the starkest contrast to the swirling pools of wastewater is seen in the Japanese garden, a serene setting for strolling and meditation.

Located next to the reclamation plant, the 2.5 hectare garden has meandering paths, a lake, streams and waterfalls and Japanese stone carvings. It even features a traditional Japanese teahouse in a re-created 14th century samurai residence. It was all designed by the noted garden designer Koichi Kawana.

Landscape architect Gene Greene says 10,000 people visit every year. Saturdays, there are weddings, which are booked a full year in advance. The park is now open on Sundays for people who come to stroll and meditate. "That program started three years ago and now we have 240 to 280 per Sunday, strolling through, walking, saying 'I can't believe this is in the San Fernando Valley and it's next to a water treatment plant.'"

The setting is also popular with Hollywood movie makers. The administration building has a sleek, space age design. Built of concrete with expansive tinted windows, it has water flowing through the base of the building.

Kook Dean says it has been used as a setting for movies and TV shows. "The building is famous for being the Star Trek space academy. You may recognize it from various Star Trek episodes," he says. "It's been used also in various shows such as Alias, Murder She Wrote, Biodome."

The garden has been seen in martial arts films.

Steve Ott, who is in charge of recycling for the Los Angeles water system, says reclaimed water from this plant will not be used for drinking. "We will use it to irrigate parks and golf courses and large landscape areas. We'll use it in a cooling tower for an industrial facility," he says. "And in some cases, when you have a new building being constructed, you might be able to use it to flush the toilets in that building."

He says the use of recycled water will free other clean water for drinking.

The added supply, says Mr. Ott, is important for the city, which faces cutbacks. Federal authorities have reduced some of the region's flow from the Colorado River, after neighboring states protested that Californians were using more than their fair share.

Los Angeles is growing, and so is water demand, but the city official says it faces no immediate threat of a shortage. We've had a very good month of April to get us through this coming year. But as we look down the road, we're expecting on the order of another 750,000 people to be moving into Los Angeles by the year 2020, so we have to plan to meet that increase in the water demand," says Mr. Ott.

He says recycling and conservation will help Los Angeles use its water more efficiently, while techniques like desalination, which remove the salt from sea water, will supplement the supplies of the coastal region.