August 2, 2012
By Nathan Chen
Water is an irreplaceable, unequivocally necessary component to all life on Earth. Movement, growth, and plain survival all depend on the presence and interaction of water. With a unique chemical structure and polarity, water is a component unto itself, and we would be hard pressed to find a replacement for it. That said, as humans in a modern, dying world we have come to realize that our prolonged existence depends upon the frugal use of our planets water. Centuries ago, global water quantity was not of much concern, as glaciers, rivers, and lakes provided it in billions of tons. Today however, as global levels of freshwater continuously dwindle at frightening speeds, we have come up with ways to treat our used water in attempts to reuse it.
At Hyperion Wastewater Facility in La Segundo California for example, wastewater from homes, offices, sewers and the like drain out to be treated and filtered. Everyday, millions of gallons from all over the Los Angeles area travel along hundreds of miles of piping to get to the treatment facility. Upon arrival, the water is subjected to numerous filtering processes to remove all contaminants and biosolids. This process begins at Headworks. From bowling balls to potato chip bags, Headworks removes all large solids that obviously do not belong in the water. That done, the water travels to the primary and secondary treatment facilities. Here, the water is further filtered to remove muck and reduce biological oxygen demand (BOD). Finally, the use of bacteria is employed to further purify the water of any remaining organic compounds. The end of this stage marks the end of the water’s stay at Hyperion. Following its treatment and filtration, the water will be dumped into the coast, a short distance down the street from the facility.
It is this final process, the dumping of millions of gallons of just- cleaned- water back into the salty, unusable water of the ocean that puzzles many learning about the facility. From an environmental standpoint, throwing all that freshly treated water back into the ocean seems counter productive and wasteful. While it is true that this water is not nearly purified enough to be reused as drinking or hygienic water, it easily could fit the needs of other biological/organic processes. Gardening, golf courses, and agriculture are just a few major uses for such “gray water”, and yet rather than being partitioned for such, the water is simply dumped back into the ocean, where it cannot be readily accessible for human use. As a consequence, Los Angeles draws more upon freshwater sources, putting more strain into our already dwindling sources.
On the other hand, one cannot simply accuse facilities such as Hyperion for seemingly negligent waste, as the process of fixing this issue would incur many other environmental problems as a result. Saying that the treated water can be used as gray water is to skip all the in betweens of getting that water to where it could be of use. Massive fleets of tankers, trucks, and other fossil fuel burning vehicles would have to cart the millions of gallons of water to wherever desired. Aside from the obvious carbon and sulfur emissions this would cause, issues such as increased traffic and the necessity for more roads would quickly cause the process to not be worth it. Piping the water to where it could be used is another option, however this would cause major environmental issues as well as new infrastructure would have to be laid down, further destroying animal habitats and ruining ecosystems. Not to mention that in all this remains the huge need for additional funding, which quite frankly just may not be accessible for the city of LA and its surrounding counties. These possibilities and issues are things that must be visited and discussed by many scientists and politicians before any action will take place.
All in all, Hyperion does the best it possibly can with the limited resources and support it gets. Perhaps the near future will see the development of water turbines that can at least use the velocity of the dumped water to generate electricity. Who knows, maybe one day Hyperion will be able to sustain itself with the water it purifies; something that Los Angeles and the rest of the country could do well learning from.
About the author: Nathan Chen is second year Environmental Studies undergraduate at the University of Southern California.