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OC Taps Into New Water Source, Raising Concerns About Contamination

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Due to the ongoing drought, the Orange County (OC) Water District began examining local groundwater sources for viable drinking water after contamination.

Water scarcity has caused city water districts across California to grow concerned about whether or not residents will be able to have access to viable drinking water. Upon further analysis, these districts have decided to explore other methods of obtaining water. 

Numerous districts have turned their attention to digging deeper into the ground surface, which has created concerns about the water’s current quality. Depending on the area, the ground surface can have numerous layers. Digging deeper into the ground allows contaminants to rise up and taint the balanced levels, causing them to go over the acceptable limit. 

OC water district officials have not decided to take this course of action. Officials have stated that north and central OC’s primary water source is groundwater, with 25% being imported. In the southern portion of OC, more than 90% of its water is imported and unaccounted. 

OC has one primary water source in the north, where a large aquifer, the OC Basin, is located. This basin supplies approximately 2.4 million OC residents half of their water. The San Juan Basin is located in the southern portion of the county. This basin is much smaller than the OC Basin and has higher salt concentrations. It must go through desalination, which uses reverse osmosis to remove salt from the water. 

This specific method is also used to remove salt from ocean water with the use of pipes. 

“Desalination is one of several tools communities can use in appropriate circumstances to gain greater water security,” said water policy expert Felicia Marcus.

Despite the potential benefits of desalination, the process may harm marine life. The pipes used to collect the water are located at the bottom of the seafloor. The method can trap fish and attract numerous other creatures, which often do not survive the process. 

Desalination has another disadvantage. When salt and contaminants are extracted from the water, a residual brine of 6% salt is formed, while normal seawater is about 3%. This brine may make the water inhospitable to local marine life.

As stated by OC Water district officials, the same amount of salt extracted is returned to the ocean and dispersed, posing another hazard to marine life. The solution settles at the bottom of the ocean floor and, due to its high concentration, causes oxygen deficiency in this biotic environment, also known as aquatic hypoxia. 

“No marine life can live in that area.” Ray Hiemstra, associate director of OC Coast Keeper, said. 

Certain groups are attempting to terminate a new desalination plant in the making, the Poseidon plant due to these concerns. 

Despite Orange County’s efforts to find effective ways to provide drinking water, the OC Water District discovered contamination from polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These substances are found in various consumer products such as non-stick cooking sprays and flame-resistant materials. These chemicals have been found in wells throughout California. Now, OC officials have found some contaminants lingering in numerous wells located in the northern portion of the county and fear it will make its way to contaminate the principal aquifer.

This information causes a great deal of concern since these chemicals are linked to cancer, liver damage, kidney damage and ulcerative colitis. However, advanced testing of these wells allows these contaminants to be detected quickly. Once detected, the contaminated wells will be closed down. 

As of December 2020, OC water districts filed a massive lawsuit over PFAS contaminant companies Dupont and 3M, claiming that the companies knew that these compounds were harmful, and would threaten public health and drinking water supply. 

It will take a long amount of time to remove all of these toxins and fully reopen all of the wells. However, Orange County has taken big leaps towards recovery. In June 2021, Orange County launched its very first water plant to remove the PFAS toxins and two dozen more will be placed. The toxins are removed with pressure vessels that filter out the PFAS chemicals. It’s currently unclear what it will take to fully resolve this issue, but it will take time.

“Certainly, in the long run, this contamination is going to take a lot more money,” Marcus said. “And a lot more thought.” 

Alexia Hawley is a City News Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at adhawley@uci.edu.