News

City eyes Superfund water for irrigation

Ongoing drought gives new value to TCE-contaminated groundwater

Brown lawns and dried-out river beds are ubiquitous in California's severe drought, but one place in Mountain View where water isn't in short supply is Stevens Creek. Year-round, the waterway near Highway 101 remains a lush oasis of running water.

One of the reasons for this urban oasis is the thousands of gallons of treated groundwater that are dumped into the creek each day. But few would dare drink this water since it originates from the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund site, where the underground aquifers contain a 30-year-old toxic plume of industrial solvents.

For years, an ongoing cleanup effort to purge this industrial waste has mostly consisted of pumping and treating the groundwater and then sending it out to stormwater channels to be taken out to the Bay. Just the water going into Stevens Creek totals about 120 million gallons per year, according to one tally.

But with every drop of water becoming more important than ever before, the underground aquifer in the Superfund site is being seen by some officials not as a toxic hazard but as an untapped resource. Rather than dumping it into Stevens Creek and other waterways, a group of city officials and environmental advocates are making the case that this water could irrigate gardens and lawns, potentially saving millions of gallons of potable water being drawn from the Hetch Hetchy system.

The idea has gained momentum at recent Mountain View public meetings. Council members Pat Showalter and Lenny Siegel have brought up recycled water during recent reviews of housing projects and encouraged private developers to plan ahead for the day when recycled water is readily available.

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"Everyone's aware of the water shortage, and recycled water is a major untapped source of water for the state," said Siegel. "It would be beneficial to use this water, but it's not a simple matter of just snapping your fingers."

Showalter, who works as a senior project manager for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said it wouldn't be difficult to make the water clean enough for landscape irrigation.

"Right now, we're extracting groundwater and for the most part it's going right into the storm drains and into Stevens Creek," Showalter said. "One of my personal goals on the council is to get as much of Mountain View's landscaping on recycled water as possible."

In fact, this idea is nothing new. All the water within the MEW Superfund site was supposed to be reclaimed for other uses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When the Superfund site was originally created in 1989, EPA officials set a goal to eventually reuse 100 percent of the water after it was treated to remove its contaminants. But the idea never really got off the ground, reportedly due to cost constraints.

Nevertheless, the idea was already well researched by Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel and Raytheon, the three companies responsible for funding the clean-up of trichloroethene (TCE). Alana Lee, EPA site manager for the MEW Superfund site, pointed out that recycling this water for other uses was gaining new attention given the drought, although it is still in the early stages of consideration.

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"It's always been part of our vision to assess the feasibility to reuse this water," she said. "It may be that once the TCE is removed, the water doesn't have any other contamination issues and would be suitable for irrigation."

So far, the only party to successfully reuse the contaminated groundwater has been NASA Ames Research Center. Starting around 2010, facility engineers began investigating ways to lower water consumption at the Arc Jet Complex, the one-of-a-kind simulator to test how spacecraft materials perform under the intense heat and stress resulting from atmospheric entry. The facility uses about 20 million gallons of water, most of which is boiled to create steam to simulate high-heat conditions, said Kenneth Kono, Arc Jet project manager. Given that huge demand, the NASA team began looking to secure a new water source as the drought worsened.

"We needed a water supply that would sustain us through the drought," Kono explained. "Back in 2009 we were using Hetch Hetchy water, so every gallon we save now is a gallon we save from the potable system."

To treat the water, the Ames Center installed a reverse-osmosis system, which purifies water so it ends up distilled. Along with supplying the Arc Jet building, the water is also used for limited irrigation around some of the campus buildings. Kono explained that one of his priorities is to find more uses for this water around the research park.

In comparison, the city of Mountain View is just beginning its study of how recycled groundwater could offset drinking water consumption. City staff members have begun meeting with EPA representatives to discuss what clearances would be required, said Public Works Director Mike Fuller. City officials need to consider how to deliver the water. An environmental study could also be necessary to examine Stevens Creek and determine whether redirecting large quantities of water would harm the habitat or protected species, such as the steelhead trout.

"Just starting out, we'd have to see what the impact would be of diverting that water away from its current location," Fuller said. "We also need to know how much demand is out there and how we'd pipe it."

What hasn't been a big concern is the health risks of recycling water contaminated with TCE, which the EPA classifies as a known carcinogen that's harmful through any means of transmission. City and EPA officials have expressed confidence that the current water treatment of carbon filters and oxidation is sufficient for removing the toxic chemicals.

"So far, what we know is there's little reason to worry about people being exposed to the contaminants," Councilman Siegel said. "Once people are informed, I don't think they'll have any objections."

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City eyes Superfund water for irrigation

Ongoing drought gives new value to TCE-contaminated groundwater

by Mark Noack / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Mon, Jul 6, 2015, 9:47 am

Brown lawns and dried-out river beds are ubiquitous in California's severe drought, but one place in Mountain View where water isn't in short supply is Stevens Creek. Year-round, the waterway near Highway 101 remains a lush oasis of running water.

One of the reasons for this urban oasis is the thousands of gallons of treated groundwater that are dumped into the creek each day. But few would dare drink this water since it originates from the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund site, where the underground aquifers contain a 30-year-old toxic plume of industrial solvents.

For years, an ongoing cleanup effort to purge this industrial waste has mostly consisted of pumping and treating the groundwater and then sending it out to stormwater channels to be taken out to the Bay. Just the water going into Stevens Creek totals about 120 million gallons per year, according to one tally.

But with every drop of water becoming more important than ever before, the underground aquifer in the Superfund site is being seen by some officials not as a toxic hazard but as an untapped resource. Rather than dumping it into Stevens Creek and other waterways, a group of city officials and environmental advocates are making the case that this water could irrigate gardens and lawns, potentially saving millions of gallons of potable water being drawn from the Hetch Hetchy system.

The idea has gained momentum at recent Mountain View public meetings. Council members Pat Showalter and Lenny Siegel have brought up recycled water during recent reviews of housing projects and encouraged private developers to plan ahead for the day when recycled water is readily available.

"Everyone's aware of the water shortage, and recycled water is a major untapped source of water for the state," said Siegel. "It would be beneficial to use this water, but it's not a simple matter of just snapping your fingers."

Showalter, who works as a senior project manager for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said it wouldn't be difficult to make the water clean enough for landscape irrigation.

"Right now, we're extracting groundwater and for the most part it's going right into the storm drains and into Stevens Creek," Showalter said. "One of my personal goals on the council is to get as much of Mountain View's landscaping on recycled water as possible."

In fact, this idea is nothing new. All the water within the MEW Superfund site was supposed to be reclaimed for other uses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When the Superfund site was originally created in 1989, EPA officials set a goal to eventually reuse 100 percent of the water after it was treated to remove its contaminants. But the idea never really got off the ground, reportedly due to cost constraints.

Nevertheless, the idea was already well researched by Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel and Raytheon, the three companies responsible for funding the clean-up of trichloroethene (TCE). Alana Lee, EPA site manager for the MEW Superfund site, pointed out that recycling this water for other uses was gaining new attention given the drought, although it is still in the early stages of consideration.

"It's always been part of our vision to assess the feasibility to reuse this water," she said. "It may be that once the TCE is removed, the water doesn't have any other contamination issues and would be suitable for irrigation."

So far, the only party to successfully reuse the contaminated groundwater has been NASA Ames Research Center. Starting around 2010, facility engineers began investigating ways to lower water consumption at the Arc Jet Complex, the one-of-a-kind simulator to test how spacecraft materials perform under the intense heat and stress resulting from atmospheric entry. The facility uses about 20 million gallons of water, most of which is boiled to create steam to simulate high-heat conditions, said Kenneth Kono, Arc Jet project manager. Given that huge demand, the NASA team began looking to secure a new water source as the drought worsened.

"We needed a water supply that would sustain us through the drought," Kono explained. "Back in 2009 we were using Hetch Hetchy water, so every gallon we save now is a gallon we save from the potable system."

To treat the water, the Ames Center installed a reverse-osmosis system, which purifies water so it ends up distilled. Along with supplying the Arc Jet building, the water is also used for limited irrigation around some of the campus buildings. Kono explained that one of his priorities is to find more uses for this water around the research park.

In comparison, the city of Mountain View is just beginning its study of how recycled groundwater could offset drinking water consumption. City staff members have begun meeting with EPA representatives to discuss what clearances would be required, said Public Works Director Mike Fuller. City officials need to consider how to deliver the water. An environmental study could also be necessary to examine Stevens Creek and determine whether redirecting large quantities of water would harm the habitat or protected species, such as the steelhead trout.

"Just starting out, we'd have to see what the impact would be of diverting that water away from its current location," Fuller said. "We also need to know how much demand is out there and how we'd pipe it."

What hasn't been a big concern is the health risks of recycling water contaminated with TCE, which the EPA classifies as a known carcinogen that's harmful through any means of transmission. City and EPA officials have expressed confidence that the current water treatment of carbon filters and oxidation is sufficient for removing the toxic chemicals.

"So far, what we know is there's little reason to worry about people being exposed to the contaminants," Councilman Siegel said. "Once people are informed, I don't think they'll have any objections."

Comments

Creeks not ditches
Bailey Park
on Jul 6, 2015 at 10:34 am
Creeks not ditches, Bailey Park
on Jul 6, 2015 at 10:34 am

With out water there is no creek, just a ditch. Please place the health of the creek above the need to put all the water that the creek life needs onto our laws.


[email protected]
Whisman Station
on Jul 6, 2015 at 11:50 am
[email protected], Whisman Station
on Jul 6, 2015 at 11:50 am

Fantastic that this is being considered and discussed by City Council, Staff, and other stakeholders. Certainly, creek wildlife needs to be considered, and it sounds like it will be.


Lane
Monta Loma
on Jul 6, 2015 at 2:12 pm
Lane, Monta Loma
on Jul 6, 2015 at 2:12 pm

What happens to the contaminants after they are removed from the water?


Member
Shoreline West
on Jul 6, 2015 at 2:34 pm
Member, Shoreline West
on Jul 6, 2015 at 2:34 pm

"When inhaled, trichloroethylene produces central nervous system depression resulting in general anesthesia."

"The symptoms of acute non-medical exposure are similar to those of alcohol intoxication, beginning with headache, dizziness, and confusion and progressing with increasing exposure to unconsciousness. Respiratory and circulatory depression can result in death."

"Occupational exposure to TCE was reported to correlate with development of symptoms of Parkinson's Disease in three laboratory workers. A retrospective twin study of pairs discordant for Parkinson's showed a six-fold increase in Parkinson's risk associated with TCE workplace exposure."

Web Link

Sure, why not! One man's toxic plume is another one's green lawn.


Otto Maddox
Monta Loma
on Jul 6, 2015 at 2:48 pm
Otto Maddox, Monta Loma
on Jul 6, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Can we say "unintended consequences"?

Are we so in love with our precious lawns that we're willing to use "processed" toxic waste to water them?

Sounds really stupid when you say it like that doesn't it?

And you just wait, at some point the pipes that carry our clean water will somehow cross with the toxic waste.

And no one will know how it happened, where the toxic waste came from, where it went, and how much each person might have ingested.

The risks outweigh the benefits.

We're in a drought folks. Let your lawn die.


Dumbfounded
Cuesta Park
on Jul 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm
Dumbfounded, Cuesta Park
on Jul 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Yes let's recycle toxic water while we allow thousands of gallons of clean water to run into the gutters when we flush the hydrants and supply lInes! Brilliant - since the City only has 1 working tanker truck to fill up!
And *gosh* we cannot allow residents to collect that water being flushed out since that could be dangerous.


factz
Old Mountain View
on Jul 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm
factz, Old Mountain View
on Jul 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm

The concentration of VOCs in the extracted groundwater is actually very small. A part per million yields 1 ounce of contaminants per 64,000,000 gallons processed. The final cleanup standards require groundwater levels in the parts per billion. After 30-plus years of extraction, there is not a lot of toxic disposal.

Over 70 chemicals have been detected in the soil and groundwater at the MEW site. TCE is the predominant chemical. TCE is used as a broad indicator of the extent of contamination. When TCE is at the cleanup level of 5 ppb in the shallow aquifers and 0.8 ppb in the deep aquifers, it is assumed that the other chemicals will be reduced to concentrations that meet the appropriate requirements.

The contamination was discovered in studies in 1981 and 1982. The underground plume is likely decades older than that (not 30 years old). The main originating sites (Fairchild, Rheem/Raytheon, Intel) date(d) back to the late 1950s.

The component Superfund site designations were several years earlier, in May of 1985, when EPA became the lead agency (previously it had been the Regional Water Quality control Board). Raytheon, Fairchild and Intel began interim remediation earlier, with the earliest water extraction beginning in 1982. Several rounds of extraction installations followed, with a major effort under the EPA in 1987, and follow-on installations. Other methods have also been tried (e.g. vapor extraction). The EPA adopted a Decision of Record that combined individual and regional remedial plans for the MEW Superfund Study Area in 1989. This finalized the goals of the remediations as cleanup standards.

The Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Superfund Study Area (or MEW Site) is comprised of three National Priorities List (NPL) or Superfund sites: Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. – Mountain View Superfund site; Raytheon Company Superfund site; and Intel Corp. – Mountain View Superfund site; several other facilities; and portions of the former Naval Air Station (NAS) Moffett Field Superfund site. The "MEW Superfund Study Area" itself is not listed on the National Priorities List (NPL).


Bob
Slater
on Jul 6, 2015 at 6:01 pm
Bob, Slater
on Jul 6, 2015 at 6:01 pm

OK Pat & Lenny, you first. So the long term goal is to water our gardens with Superfund water & drink processed toilet water. It's a brave new world in The valley of hearts delight. We are surrounded by people with more degrees than a thermometer and not an ounce of common sense.


Me
Willowgate
on Jul 6, 2015 at 6:06 pm
Me, Willowgate
on Jul 6, 2015 at 6:06 pm

we already drink recycled toilet water. fish pee in the water that becomes our drinking water. the water we use goes back to the ocean, and eventually becomes rain or snow again. I


Rodger
Sylvan Park
on Jul 6, 2015 at 6:49 pm
Rodger, Sylvan Park
on Jul 6, 2015 at 6:49 pm

Probably too costly but I am wondering much it would cost to have recycle water delivered to a house in Mountain View, not thinking yet about the super fund water just the water comes from the waste water treatment plant that is used north of 101 in Mountain View.


Reader
another community
on Jul 6, 2015 at 9:37 pm
Reader, another community
on Jul 6, 2015 at 9:37 pm

@Rodger:

The expense of building additional water delivery infrastructure to existing residential properties is probably too cost prohibitive. After all, we are talking about tap water, pennies per gallon.

That said, at some point (maybe not in my lifetime), the city may require new residential developments to build that additional infrastructure. Of course, there would be some additional costs associated with metering two separate water sources, so even if the recycled water was cheaper, the customer would bear the costs of the additional monitoring.

If I recall correctly, some of the areas in the northwest section of Mountain View (Shoreline) are actually getting recycled water from the Palo Alto sewage treatment plant. I believe some commercial customers and the golf course are amongst using this source.


Jane
North Whisman
on Jul 7, 2015 at 4:20 pm
Jane, North Whisman
on Jul 7, 2015 at 4:20 pm

The water in the section of the creek pictured in the article is only inches deep. The creek is very low for this time of year; and even though the data references large amounts of water going into the creek, biking Steven's Creek Trail every day and seeing the toppled trees, the stagnant water and dry patches has me concerned about our creek. If the water is diverted away from the Creek, I think there would be a huge negative impact. But I am no expert, just a bike commuter who takes photos year-over-year and sees how sad our creek looks this year.


Reader
another community
on Jul 8, 2015 at 11:49 am
Reader, another community
on Jul 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

@Jane:

I'm not sure if the data references a large amount of water (the definition is not provided) or if it is simply the author of this article who decided to apply that adjective.

Furthermore "thousands of gallons ... each day" is almost meaningless. Are we talking three thousand, thirty thousand, or three hundred thousand? A shower head or sink faucet with a flow restrictor pours out about 2 gallons per minute; over 24 hours, that's about three thousand gallons.

My guess is that "thousands of gallons" would still only result in a couple inches of creek depth, which is what we see in the photos. The recycled water from the MEW Superfund site enters Stevens Creek maybe 1.5 miles from the estuary, which is why Stevens Creek is basically dry south of 101.

Whatever the MEW treated water is doing to the ecology only affects the last 1.5 miles of the creek. Of course, the impact of reducing that water should probably be investigated.

The water level at Stevens Creek Reservoir is still fairly high right now, so clearly whoever is in charge of the dam is parsimoniously releasing water.


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