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Water Works: Mehul V. Patel on the Future of Recycled Water

In the first of our “Water Works” series canvasing leading voices in California water management, Mehul V. Patel, director of water production for the pioneering Orange County Water District, talks about why lawmakers are finally catching up with the drought.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The Orange County Water District water filtration system at their treatment plant in Fountain Valley, California. is part of a water recycling operation that has served as a model for other communities across the nation where water is in short supply.Chris Carlson, AP

California’s drought has spurred interest among water agencies in recycled water. But one has been way ahead of the curve: The Orange County Water District has been using recycled water to supplement groundwater since 1975.

A key member of its operations is Mehul V. Patel, the director of water production. He oversees the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS), the largest municipal reuse facility in the world, and the Green Acres Project, a water reuse effort that provides recycled water for uses including parks, schools and toilet flushing.

Patel, an engineer by training, has been with the district for 18 years. As part of our “Water Works” series focusing on water management, he recently spoke with Water Deeply about emerging technologies and how the drought has impacted recycled water.

Water Deeply: What does a regular day as the director of water production at the Orange County Water District look like?

Mehul V. Patel: First thing in the morning, I look at the plant reports to see how much water we produced and if there were any problems. Part of the day is spent in the field – looking at the equipment and the plant, making sure that things are running. We have a lot of meetings, calls like this one or visits from agencies we’re working with and agencies interested in doing more reuse.

Other parts of my day might sound more mundane – I buy a lot of chemical parts and repair stuff, go over budgets. Like most workplaces, we have a lot of meetings. I’m an engineer to begin with and I like solving problems. They’re never so big that they affect the amount of water we produce, or the quality of the water, but having to solve them keeps it interesting. No two days are the same.

Water Deeply: How have OCWD’s priorities shifted amid the drought?

Patel: There’s a bigger emphasis on maximizing production out of our recycle facility and trying to maximize the amount of Santa Ana River capture that we get. While we’ve always tried to capture what we can, there’s an even greater emphasis now on efficiency and getting more water into the groundwater aquifer so that we can keep it filled and sustainable for our customers.

We’re also looking more closely at new technologies. We’ve always been approached by different technology providers or consultants about new processes. Now we’re seeing more of those and we’re vetting them more closely because there may be other technologies out there that may allow us to be even more efficient and capture even more water.

Water Deeply: Has the drought changed your job?

Patel: The outreach component and the emphasis on the economics have definitely become more important.

Water Deeply: What do you consider California’s biggest water challenge to be?

Patel: Supply more than anything else. It’s hard to believe that the sources we had for decades will stay at their past levels. Beyond conservation, we need to look at what other sources do we need to pursue and how we can increase the alternative sources that are possible right now. But what keeps some of those developments from proceeding faster is the regulatory framework. It hasn’t quite caught up to some of the newest technologies. Things like direct potable are not legal in the current regulatory framework.

Water Deeply: Are regulatory changes being sped up because of the drought?

Patel: While it still requires a lot of time at the end of the day, the drought has already spurred more progress in the last five years than in the last 15 or 20 together. Specifically in California, the state legislature has mandated for the Division of Drinking Water to come up with guidelines for direct potable reuse. That was never even on the books before. The groundwater reuse regulations that were finalized last year had been in draft form for almost 20 years.

Water Deeply: What’s your biggest goal in the next five years?

Patel: For our agency, it’s to expand the groundwater replenishment system to its final capacity. The drought has made that harder. There’s less wastewater than there used to be, so we have to get wastewater from a different treatment plant, bringing up questions of cost and infrastructure.

Water Deeply: What do you consider the most promising development in the water recycling and reuse field?

Patel: The emergence of the technologies themselves. They’re not only cost-effective now, but there’s a greater understanding of their capability and they’re now being implemented more. Technologies like the ones we’re using were previously relegated to the industrial market or fields like manufacturing. Now they’ve become almost a staple of traditional municipal drinking and wastewater treatment.

Water Deeply: OCWD has been a pioneer in water recycling in California. What are the district’s future plans with this technology?

Patel: We want to look at ways to increase our overall recovery. Reverse osmosis produces a concentrate or waste stream. There are technologies called concentrate recovery that try to extract even more water out of the waste stream, allowing you to increase overall productivity without losing so much water to the residual stream.

Water Deeply: What parting thought would you leave our readers with?

Patel: Think about where your water comes from and how reliant we are upon it, not only for our own sustenance but for manufacturing, the economy … Water hasn’t been given its proper emphasis and it’s still undervalued. That can’t last forever, especially in arid regions like Southern California.

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