Orange County Water District has been a pioneer in recycling wastewater for drinking since the opening of Water Factory 21 in 1976, inspiring cities and countries around the world to follow its lead ever since. That leadership has also earned the district a reputation as an innovator in water quality and supply issues, which it now brings to the search for solutions to the emerging challenges of PFAS – per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – found in water supplies.
These chemicals have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s to make items waterproof, stain-resistant or non-stick. While no longer manufactured in the United States, these legacy PFAS are still made in other countries and are present in many imported products. These chemicals then make their way to groundwater through landfills, conventionally treated wastewater, military sites and other sources such as legacy PFAS manufacturing sites. People are also exposed to PFAS through use of products treated with the chemicals.
OCWD has been proactively exploring how PFAS can be removed from groundwater supplies. In 2019, the district’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory became the first public agency laboratory in California to achieve state certification to analyze for PFAS in drinking water. Last year, it also launched the nation’s largest water treatment pilot program for PFAS, through which it tests various methods of filtering PFAS chemicals out of drinking water, specific to each retail agency in its service area.
Those efforts proved prescient when in early 2020, the State of California lowered the acceptable levels for PFAS, prompting the closure of groundwater wells in Orange County and across California. The new, lower state level was set at 10 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and 40 parts per trillion for perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS), two chemicals in the PFAS family.
Over the next few years, OCWD and its member agencies affected by the chemicals are planning on constructing and operating new treatment systems to remove PFAS from drinking water wells.
“We’re making a significant investment to ensure water agencies in Orange County can continue providing clean, reliable, and more affordable water to their customers,” said OCWD Board President Vicente Sarmiento.
With wells shut down, area water agencies will rely on imported water instead of groundwater to meet communities’ water needs. That shift underscores the importance of a reliable imported water supply which serves as an insurance policy for the region not just when water supplies become unusable but also during drought.
For more information about OCWD’s work, visit its PFAS webpage to view a fact sheet, video and other useful information.