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

August 2, 2012


By Arya Harsono

The last thing you could imagine toilet water to be is drinkable. Los Angeles County toilets, however, are clean enough to be consumed by humans without any major health complications. This is because of the thorough water management processes handled at Los Angeles’ Hyperion Treatment Plant, located on the city’s coast. The plant does not only deal with cleaning out waste water, it also takes out solid pollutants and reuses them as fertilizer, while also protecting the marine environment surrounding the establishment. Founded in the late 1800’s, the Hyperion Treatment Plant has been an important part of Los Angeles’ history. The plant originally ran up until the 1950s when a population boom occurred in the city, forcing the operators to halt many of their treatment processes.

For 30 years, sludge had built up in Californian waters and, in 1980, the city of Los Angeles launched a $1.6 billion seven-year secondary treatment program to collect the polluting biosolids in order to prevent them from entering the Bay. Since then, the biodiversity inhabiting the area around Hyperion has increased significantly along with an additional 95% reduction in biosolid waste ( The city’s government has since realized the importance of waste management and has allowed Hyperion to flourish in its ecological activities, hoping to restore the damage it has once done on the Californian coast.

All of Los Angeles’ sewers lead to the Hyperion Treatment Plant, where they undergo multiple filtration processes. Most treatment plants undergo at least four stages of water treatment, but Hyperion Treatment Plant only reaches the secondary treatment stage before it dumps its over 600 million gallons of water into the ocean. Nothing to worry about though: the cleansed water has been modified so that it does not negatively affect saline waters.

The Hyperion Treatment Plant’s water cleansing process is slow but effective. The millions of gallons of sewage from Californian residents enter the plant’s head-works system, which is uses large piston-driven machines to separate large solids from the water. This is known as the primary treatment stage. After the water has been screen through the first stage, it is then poured into a cylindrical pit where it undergoes the secondary treatment. This stage in the process is painstakingly unhurried, as it carefully removes any silt, sediment, or scum discharge that may have evaded the primary treatment. In this stage, bacteria that consume remaining microscopic organic material are introduced to the waters, to further purify it. This water is then purged into the ocean, where it will continue to be a part of the hydrological cycle once more.

But environmentalists find the process’ results insufficient. More could be done to ensure water conservation and ecological benefit. Why not reuse the water for irrigation or crops? What about hydropower? It appears that gallons of water are being wasted when they could be reused or recycled. Statistically, only about 10% is returned to residential water systems. This is because transporting water back up into the city would require a great deal of effort involving commercial trucks, which could ironically be a negative impact on the environment rather than a way to preserve it. Hydroelectricity mills are also a seemingly rational use for the gallons of water being dumped into the ocean. The electricity generated from these mills could potentially power the plant and provide it with self-sufficient electrical energy, until the water runs out that is. All of these potential conflicts with the ways that one could improve the resulting water from Hyperion demonstrates the complexity behind energy sustainability while maintaining human society. The Hyperion Treatment Plant and the Los Angeles County government are continuously working hard on finding appropriate solutions to the ecological problems they must now face.


“LA Sewers.” LA Sewers. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 July 2012. <>.

About the author: Arya Harsono is an undergraduate student at USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences taking a B.S. in Environmental Studies. His passions can be found submerged deep in the abyss of the ocean, where no man (or woman) will ever take it from him.

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.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: What you can do for clean water

By Jordan Smith-Newman

Runoff is most commonly thought of as the water flow that occurs when soil is saturated to full capacity and excess water from rain or other sources flows over the land into streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries, and oceans, carrying with it contaminants, nutrients, and any other contents the water picks up. It might therefore be easy to believe that hazardous runoff comes mainly from farms and deforested areas and thus from sources and practices that the average citizen in Los Angeles cannot change. In another sense, however, everyone in fact contributes to polluting runoff in one way or.  To see how, we need to get down to the nitty-gritty, so to speak, and consider two source pollutants, one nonpoint and one point, that people might not readily think about: dog feces and human waste. Whether washed from streets and sidewalks into storm drains or directly disposed of onto beaches, dog feces greatly affect coastal cleanliness and safety.  Similarly, liquid discharged from homes—sinks and flushed toilets—and then emitted from a water treatment plant can have damaging effects on coastal waters. While important governmental regulations exist to control these two kinds of runoff, individuals can take action on their own to reduce their negative impact on coastal waters.

The majority of waste from point and nonpoint sources ends up in the same place, namely the ocean. However, the difference is where the waste comes from. A point source is one that is specifically identifiable whereas a nonpoint source pollutant comes from many diffuse locations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Pollution Prevention Management Measure in 1993 that specifically addresses nonpoint source pollution. One subsection concentrates specifically on “improper disposal of pet excrement.”[1] Not only does the waste decay to cause anoxic waters and create excess nutrient algal blooms, but it is also a concern for human health. Children and adults who play and swim in areas near runoffs “are most at risk for infection from some of the bacteria and parasites found in pet waste.”[2] Although the 1972 Clean Water Act established a structure for specifically regulating the discharge of point source pollutants, similar hazards still exist. Based on a study done on the Columbia River Basin in Washington and Oregon, traces of two pharmaceuticals were detected: carbamazepine, a prescription drug for bipolar disorder and epilepsy, and diphenhydramine, a common ingredient in over-the-counter allergy relief medicines.[3]

Although the government has taken actions to study and reduce pollution from both point and nonpoint sources, it is clear that much more needs to be done. I would argue that education programs to raise awareness and actions to decrease impacts of improper disposal on a more local level are necessary to improve water quality and safety. Individuals must become more aware of their waste, both biological and physical.   It might be a natural tendency not to want to think about such unpleasant facts of life as excrement and the dirty water that goes down our drains. But precisely by getting people to become aware that the most mundane biological products cause great harm to the environment could lead people to take more control over a very common part of their lives.


[1] Pollution Prevention Management Measure. Environmental Protection Agency.

[2]Carolyn Johnson. Pet Waste and Water Quality.

[3] Scientific Investigation Report 2012. U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey. <>

About the author: Jordan Smith-Newman is a senior in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She has a strong interest in marine and coastal environmental policy. After she completes her BS in Environmental Studies she plans to pursue a degree in Environmental Law.

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.

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