USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

August 2, 2012

TreatiLA: A look into the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Facility

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.

From toilet to tap: recycled water’s potential to provide clean water for Southern California remains yet to be tapped

By Connie Ge

Windhoek, Namibia. Singapore, Singapore. Brisbane, Australia. El Paso, Texas. San Jose and Orange County, California. Astronauts at the International Space Station. These are among a small handful of places in the world that currently recycle wastewater, from household toilets and sinks, into clean drinking water. The concept of recycled water, or “toilet to tap” is not novel; plants in Namibia have operated successfully since 1968. Also called reclaimed water or grey water, recycled water has been used in the US for agriculture and industry for decades.

Los Angeles too is revisiting recycling water, or “toilet to tap” amidst rising dependency on imported water. 1.3 billion gallons of treated wastewater are discharged into the Pacific Ocean daily. However, once freshwater has been released into the saline ocean water, retrieving it via desalination is extremely energy intensive and thus pales as an efficient method for meeting public demands in comparison to recycling freshwater.

While 97% of the world’s water lies in its oceans, less than 1% is accessible freshwater. Due to global warming, melting icecaps and glacier water are flowing into the oceans at accelerated rates. A basic understanding of the hydrological cycle underscores why conserving freshwater via recycling should be a growing priority for both coastal and inland cities and farm communities in years to come.

Due to rapid desertification of the San Joaquin Valley’s water the past century, on July 24, Gov. Jerry Brown and US Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar announced a $23 billion plan to replenish the depleted, over-pumped farms and cities with water from the Sacramento River. Farmers and environmentalists of northern California voted down a similar plan proposed by Brown three decades ago and are currently protesting the legislation. While water relocation may be necessary to restore depleted farmlands, as a large center of water consumption, Los Angeles has a chance to better sustain itself.

Is recycled water clean enough to drink? Yes. “The technology is remarkable and can treat water to an often higher quality than the water that originally entered the system,” says Brent Haddad, PhD, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. District managers of the Orange County’s Water District also stated that the recycled water actually exceeded drinking water standards. The Singapore NEWater facilities’ launched a public education campaign prior to the opening of the treatment plant in 2003 explaining in detail the processes used, diminishing public skepticism.

Los Angeles hopes to increase its proportion of recycled local water from 1% to 6% by 2019. The technologies for effective water recycling are within reach: the Hyperion Water Treatment Plant, the largest in southern California once did so, but for some reason stopped. The Orange County Water Treatment Plant was a model for Singapore’s NEWater as well as a new plant in Van Nuys, the Tillman plant. The treatment process includes first microfiltration to remove sediment and organic waste, then reverse osmosis through thin membranes at high pressure to remove microorganisms, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and finally ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to breakdown remaining compounds. The treated water then percolates through pebbles into an aquifer, where it is pumped up for use several years later.

Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right that all living on planet Earth deserve. While the global South, or so-called “developing” world may sometimes lack infrastructure to meet demands, the global North is also facing considerable freshwater shortages. Not to utilize existing technology would be a waste.

While nervousness at the prospect of recycled water may be anticipated, the conversation itself could have far-reaching effects on deeper attitudes towards resource management. The awareness of what goes around comes around will hopefully invoke unflinching awareness and honesty about where the water we use comes from, where it goes, and increased accountability in regards to water as a shared commodity.


“California county turns to sewer water to increase drinking supplies” New York Times. Randal C. Archibold. Tuesday November 27, 2007.

“From toilet to tap: Psychologists lend their expertise to overcoming the public’s aversion to reclaimed water” American Psychological Association. Sadie F. Dingfielder. September 2004.

“As ‘Yuck Factor’ subsides, treated wastewater flows from taps” Felicity Baringer. New York Times February 9, 2012.

“California governor unveils ambitious water plan” Jim Christie. Reuters.

“Getting it clean: recycling LA wastewater”

“Recharging the water supply” and “The city’s supplies” spreads by the Los Angeles Times

About the author: Connie Ge is a junior at the University of Southern California working to complete a bachelor of sciences in Earth Sciences.

Trace Amounts of Pharmaceuticals Bring Whole New Meaning To “It Must Be Something In The Water”

By Richelle Tanner

Whenever another high school from the Seattle region won a jazz festival, our pristine drinking water was always given full credit. Often when an outstanding athlete, musician, or scholar hails from a region already plentiful in their kind, people joke that there must be something in the water supply that gives them a specific advantage in their field. While the validity of this is debatable, there is no question whether certain areas are more susceptible to water contamination. Even after standardized treatment of wastewater, pharmaceuticals still persist and are released into the ecosystem, whether it be into the ocean or via fertilization of crops.

Currently there are no EPA regulations on levels of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in drinking water or wastewater, even though trace levels have been detected for the last forty years. Wastewater must undergo primary and secondary treatment in order to be released, with some receiving tertiary treatment for use as “gray water”. However, these treatments are not fully comprehensive, and some minor contaminants remain in the water after all treatments have been administered. One particular PPCP in question is ethynylestradiol, which is commonly used as an oral contraceptive. It is known to have had “hermaphroditic” impacts on male fish, essentially “feminizing” them – yet another anthropogenic effect on the ecosystem. It is only a matter of time before the impacts of PPCPs’ presence in the water is apparent in humans as well. Even though there are not significant amounts of PPCPs in drinking water supplies (the maximum concentration ever found of meprobamate, a PPCP, is 0.000042 mg/L — in order to receive a single therapeutic dose, one would have to drink >4.7 million liters of water in one day), the potential for rising concentrations is significant.

Using the Hyperion Water Treatment Plant as an example, the wastewater treated there ends up in the ocean, in crop fields, and in industrial settings. Although the water is not directly used by humans, the implications of PPCPs on the ecosystem and humans’ place in said ecosystem (not to say that humans are more important) are inevitable and could already have negative consequences that are not yet known. The EPA has jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act to regulate the presence of PPCPs in water supplies, and similar to other pressing environmental issues, it needs to be addressed before it becomes a noticeable concern. Pushed aside any longer, and maybe the saying, “it must be something in the water”, will hold true — at least for trending genetic mutation or abnormalities, that is.


About the author: Richelle Tanner is a sophomore in the USC Dornsife College and the USC Thornton School of Music pursuing a double degree in Environmental Studies, B.S., and Jazz Studies, B.M.. She intends to pursue graduate studies in Marine Science and originally hails from Seattle, WA.

Malibu Lagoon: Restoring What’s Left of California’s Estuaries

By Lauren Stoneburner

Sometimes, it’s hard to let go. Sometimes, it’s not easy to embrace change; to take a risk. Fortunately, in the case of restoring Malibu Lagoon, we do not have to be afraid. The plan has endured more than a decade’s worth of scrutiny, having been developed and reviewed by many wetland experts and assessed for compliance with all California Environmental Quality Act requirements. Therefore, the plans to restore the lagoon are absolutely qualified to move forward and be implemented this summer.

Some stakeholders fear that this plan has underestimated the immensity of the restoration. Opponents assert that the plan is not prepared to handle the vast amount of water needed to be stored after the dewatering of the lagoon. They also worry that experts have underestimated the project’s costs and that changes will ultimately degrade public health and the native ecosystem. To their disadvantage, the opponents ground their argument in generalized claims, failing to use specific evidence in most cases. Such ungrounded claims should not so easily uproot the credibility of the project. The plans to restore the lagoon could not have been any more carefully put together and examined for accuracy.

Now that the project has been thoroughly reviewed, it is imperative that the city implement the project. The Malibu Lagoon is fed by polluted sources of water with high levels of nutrients, bacteria, and sedimentation. The excess nutrients have led to eutrophication, which depletes the water’s dissolved oxygen (DO) and threatens the entire marine ecosystem, and sedimentation degrades the overall habitat quality for marine organisms. The project would redirect the water in such a way that would restore the lagoon’s tidal influence and circulation, and thereby improve the water’s DO levels.

The restoration of the water’s DO levels is critical for several reasons. Firstly, the lagoon’s poor conditions have drastically limited the ecosystem’s species richness and biodiversity, thus enabling exotic and invasive plant species to out-compete the native wetland species. By restoring the lagoon, native species populations will no longer be limited by the diminished DO levels. This will enable them to better compete with exotic species, reestablish high biodiversity levels, and restore a balanced ecosystem.

The lagoon also provides critical habitat for several federally endangered species, such as the tidewater goby and southern steelhead trout, and it plays an essential role in the migratory path of many bird species. Restoring the lagoon supports the recovery of endangered species and protects migratory bird species, whose habitat has been drastically reduced due to human development, especially along the coast. In fact, California has lost about half of all of its wetlands and 95 percent of its historic wetlands.

As comparable estuarial habitats have been lost in the wake of human development, it has become increasingly important to maintain Malibu Lagoon’s integrity. The lagoon is vital because of its importance to both native and migratory species. Thus, restoring Malibu Lagoon is more than a local issue, for it effects populations far beyond the city limits. Most importantly, however, it concerns the survival not only of individual species, but of a unique and increasingly threatened ecosystem.


Sikich, Sarah Abramson, and Mark Gold. Letter to California Coastal Commission. 2010. Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project. SuperOxygen, Inc.. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

Paul Preibisius. “Stop Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project.” June 10, 2012. Force Change. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

About the author: Lauren Stoneburner is a sophomore undergraduate majoring in Environmental Studies and Biological Anthropology at the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The Poop Scoop

Filed under: Emerging Contaminants,Nutrient Pollution,Stormwater Runoff — dginsbur @ 8:59 pm

By Shaun Wolfe

The Hyperion Water Treatment Plant is the biggest water treatment plant west of the Mississippi. The plant handles an average of 300 million gallons of water per day, and has the capacity to take up to 900 million gallons. 90% of the water processed by the plant is pumped into the ocean, so it is important to treat this water in a way that causes the least amount of harm to humans and the environment alike.

Before 1972, all water treated by the Hyperion plant was only screened (only large fecal matter and trash removed) before being pumped into the ocean. To the delight of environmentalists and recreation enthusiasts alike, much has changed around the plant since then thanks to the Clean Water Act. By 1998, the Hyperion plant can treat sewage water in up to three different stages. Currently, the plant only uses two stages to treat the water.

The first step in the treatment process, titled “preliminary” treatment is located in the headwaters facility. This part of the process is dedicated to removing large items from the sewage such as trash, branches, and other large solids. These items are then grinded up, stored in one of six large hoppers, and then taken to a landfill. 500 tons of these biosolids are sent to local farmers to help fertilize their land (LA Sewers)

After the largest items are removed, the water goes through “primary” treatment where the rest of the solids are removed in underground tanks, which are covered to limit odor (LA Sewers). It takes about an hour and a half for water to get through primary treatment when it reaches the second stage, aptly titled “secondary” treatment. The water is sent to large vats where buoyant items float on the surface and heavy items sink, as they are whipped away by rotating metal scrapers. All the while, scientists on the plant maintain a careful equilibrium of bacteria in the wastewater that helps clean the water by eating waste. Oxygen is injected into the water to help keep the right amount of bacteria living. Finally the water is sent to centrifuges where the water is essentially at its last stage of purification.

The water is then pumped out to the ocean through a five mile-long pipeline. At the base of pipeline, it is 12 feet in diameter. As the pipeline reaches its end, it breaks off into two different pipes that are 6 inches in diameter when they release the water. This is to help the wastewater mix into the ocean and maintain a reasonable level of pollution and temperature change.

Although the Hyperion Treatment Plant has taken crucial steps and invested a lot of money to become an environmental friendly plant, it’s hard not to be concerned as a local beach-goer. While secondary treatment is a federal mandate, and obviously a gigantic step up from primary treatment, it is not even close to the cleanest water a treatment plant can release. After looking at the water treated in the secondary stage, I can say that I don’t want to swim in it. Hyperion has the ability to send water through a tertiary treatment, which would purify it further and cause less damage to the local marine ecosystems. Implementation of tertiary treatment would also put the plant at the forefront of California treatment plants and set a precedent for construction of a reusable grey water infrastructure. Financial constraints seem to be the main obstacle for this plan, but as the need for water in Southern California increases we may see tertiary treatment and reusable grey water systems increase.

About the Author: Shaun Wolfe is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California.

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