As a critical piece of infrastructure, wastewater management is key to a modern economy and the accompanying increased productivity of our region. The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County (LACSD) is a public agency created to manage wastewater and solid waste on a regional scale. It consists of 24 independent special districts serving about 5 million people in Los Angeles County. The service area encompasses 78 cities and unincorporated territory within the county. The General Manager and Chief Engineer, Grace Robinson Hyde, has been with LACSD for 33 years and currently oversees 1,700 employees and an annual budget of over $700 million. Below is an interview with Grace on the important work and activities of LACSD, and how she views her role in the organization.
- The Sanitation Districts have one of the largest recycled water programs in the nation. How does your recycling program work?
Our recycling efforts started in 1949, when our agency developed a series of water reuse plans. These plans ultimately resulted in the siting of ten water recycling plants that convert sewage from homes and businesses into highly-treated water that is essentially drinking water quality. We work with our water partners to convey the recycled water to reuse locations. Most of the recycled water is sent to spreading basins where the water is filtered through the soil to replenish groundwater supplies. This groundwater is later pumped to the surface and used by homes and businesses. Our recycled water program now provides water to over 890 reuse sites in the county including landscape irrigation, agricultural applications, and industrial uses. Last year, we reached an exciting milestone—over the life of our program, we’ve recycled over 1 trillion gallons of water. That is enough water to fill a 12-foot pipe from the earth to the moon!
- Why is there a need for water recycling, particularly in LA County?
Southern California is a semi-arid region and there is not enough rainfall to support our large population. We are heavily reliant upon imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River. The amount of imported water available to Southern California has been impacted by endangered species, climate change, and growing water demands from other states and Mexico. As a society, we have a basic need for safe, reliable and cost-effective water.
- How does recycling benefit homes and businesses in the region?
By recycling water, we reduce our dependence on imported water, the cost of which has risen significantly in recent years. Because water must be highly treated whether recycled or discharged to a river or ocean, recycling water is relatively cost-effective. Recycled water is more resistant to drought than rainfall or imported water and thus provides a more reliable water source. Recycling wastewater also requires less energy than importing water, which results in less greenhouse gas emissions.
- Do the Sanitation Districts have plans to recycle more?
Our last untapped source of recycled water is our Joint Water Pollution Control Plant in Carson. This plant treats most of our system’s industrial wastewater, which tends to be salty. Normal treatment technologies do not remove salt. Consequently, the treated water from that plant, while safe to discharge to the ocean, is too salty for most reuse purposes.
Recent technological improvements have reduced the cost of water purification necessary for salt removal. The Sanitation Districts have partnered with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to explore a water purification project located at the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant. The concept is to further purify the plant’s treated water and replenish local groundwater basins with the purified (low salt) water—essentially an extension of what we’ve been doing since 1962. Similar to our current groundwater replenishment program, this groundwater will be pumped and used by homes and businesses. As conceived, this project could provide a significant new source of local water—enough water for 335,000 homes!
- What’s it like to be a woman in your field?
To be a woman in an engineering field today is not as unusual as it was when I began my career. In fact, at our agency today, many of our engineers are women who work in planning, financial management, research, design, construction, operations and compliance, including positions in upper management. I enjoy talking with staff—both listening to their views of our industry’s future and providing a bit of advice from my experience.
- What does your job entail/what is an average day for you like?
My typical work day is like that of many people; that is, a day filled with meetings, phone calls and paperwork. One thing I value about my day-to-day work is the way that support from our boards and collaboration among our outstanding staff help us develop exciting, innovative projects. Examples of these projects include our water recycling, food waste recycling, and conversion of waste into green energy. I feel very fortunate to have such an exciting career, and I encourage young women and men alike to consider environmental engineering as a career path.