The building along Spring Street near Long Beach Airport is easy to miss. A fence surrounds a squat gray building with no roof, with an office building set far off the main thoroughfare.

But the Long Beach Groundwater Treatment Plant serves a critical function, particularly as the state sinks deeper into drought.

Behind its walls the plant collects water from the city’s roughly 20 water wells, which is stored in large pools behind the fence as it’s treated with chemicals, filtered and funneled to faucets throughout the city.

The fact that Long Beach does this itself has spared residents from some of the dramatic water price hikes and stringent restrictions that other cities have faced.

Long Beach’s fortuitous location on the state water table allows it to drill its own wells and avoid having to import a larger share of its water from regional agencies that can be costly.

Long Beach has the rights to pump 33,000 acre-feet of water out of the ground each year, which equates to about 60% of its total water usage. An acre-foot is enough water to supply one to two average households with water for a year.

Other cities in the region share the water basin that is managed by the Water Replenishment District, which sets limits for withdrawals and reintroduces storm runoff and recycled water back into the basin to keep it sustainable.

The city is now looking to shore up its groundwater supply, as the difference in cost for an acre-foot of local groundwater ($680) and imported water ($1,100) is substantial.

The department plans to spend $16 million this coming fiscal year to drill a dozen new wells or re-drill old ones to sustain its groundwater production, a spokesperson said.

The department has approved its 2023 fiscal year budget and sent it to the City Council for final approval, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.

Tai Tseng, the assistant general manager of operations for the Long Beach Water Department, explains the safety measures featured in the city’s water treatment facility’s chlorine storage area Thursday, July 7, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The budget also takes into account rising costs of chemicals used to treat water, as well as a refund to ratepayers after the city lost a lawsuit over millions of dollars in fees that were being transferred from the water department to the general fund that pays for things like police and fire.

A total of $30.8 million is being sent back to the water department, which has pledged to pass that money back to ratepayers who the courts determined had been overcharged since 2018.

However, steeper cuts to monthly rates will likely be dependent on the cost of materials in the future. The department is projecting rate increases over the next few years to build up its reserves.

And department officials say that investing more in cheaper groundwater now could help put off larger future increases in the event that persistent drought conditions further drive up the price of imported water.

Even in the current inflationary environment that has driven up the cost of chemicals and pipes, pumping and treating its own water is a cheaper option for the department and its customers.

From the ground to your tap

The groundwater treatment plant just south of the Long Beach Airport is a complex maze of laboratories, chemical storage tanks, pipes and pools of water in various stages of treatment. The plant cleans and blends groundwater with imported water before being sent out to Long Beach homes and businesses.

It can process 62.5 million gallons of water per day.

The city’s ability to pump water and treat it has allowed water bills to remain relatively low. This year, residents will pay about $82 per month for water and sewer service, which is over $50 less than Los Angeles and about half as much as Oakland residents pay for service.

When other cities that draw more water from the State Water Project were told to limit outdoor watering to one day, Long Beach announced a two-day limit. The news that state water officials were  reducing water allocations from 15% to 5% from what water agencies requested hurt the city, but not as much as others who are more dependent on imported supplies.

Mark Kotani, lab analyst 3 for the Long Beach Water Department, looks over the results of water analyses Thursday, July 7, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The East Long Beach facility, part of a vast network, is fed by 20 ground wells located in parks across the city that pump groundwater to a team of about 50 engineers, scientists and operators who test, clean and blend it with imported water from the Metropolitan Water District.

Potable water treated by the plant is stored in massive reservoir tanks that are strategically located on elevated planes so that even in the event of power outages water will continue to flow to customers.

Tai Tseng, assistant general manager of operations for the Long Beach Water Department, explained the complex process of cleaning the city’s water that includes detecting metals and microbes that could be harmful to residents and adding chemicals to make the water clean and clear.

A polymer blend is used to strip the color out of the groundwater that is naturally yellow-tinged due to the organic material accumulated beneath the city and acts like a tea bag, discoloring the water. The polymer binds with the color in the water and forms a sort of “miso soup” with the polymer suspended in the water before it’s separated out through a series of filters.

Caustic soda helps prevent erosion of pipes and fluoride is added to help prevent tooth decay.

Chlorine is added for a number of reasons, including helping ensure that the water is safe and meets federal safety standards (99.99% of bacteria must be killed).

“It provides a sort of immune system,” Tseng said. “If you didn’t have that then the water can grow things inside the pipes.”

The water that comes straight from the ground is more or less safe to drink, Tseng explained, but like all water sources, sometimes it comes into contact with naturally occurring elements in the soil or human-introduced pollution that can be harmful.

City water is tested for bacteria weekly with 56 samples from wells across the city being checked for things like E-coli or other bugs that can lead to acute illnesses, like gastrointestinal issues.

The facility has a machine that uses a plasma flame that breaks down water into individual molecules that allow the plant’s workers to see how much of a certain type of metal like arsenic, lead or aluminum are present in the water and if they’re under allowable levels.

Those levels are measured in parts per billion, or in the case of nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), a compound found in foods including meat, cheese and beer, it’s measured in parts per trillion.

“Two drops of NDMA in the Rose Bowl if it was entirely filled up with water and I’d be over the limit,” Tseng said.

Costs are going up

The chemicals to treat the water are getting more expensive.

The Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners approved purchase agreements last week for the next supply of chemicals for the plant with some steep increases.

Sodium hydroxide is up 123%. The polymer blend used to remove the color is up 88%. Liquid chlorine, which is also used in the production of plastic, is up 281%. This has contributed to the cost of treating the city’s groundwater (32,696-acre-feet per year) more than doubling from $1 million to $2.4 million.

“It’s kind of just what every other industry is experiencing right now,” Long Beach Water Department spokesperson Lauren Gold said.

The increases haven’t been limited to chemicals, Gold said.

The cost of pipes, valves and other materials the department uses in its network have gone up. Gold said the department had projected construction costs to go up 11% and raw materials by 60% before the current inflationary trends.

“We have accounted for cost increases in chemicals, raw materials and construction as part of our budget process for next year and are confident we’ll be able to meet the needs of the Long Beach community as well as continue to invest in the water system,” Gold said.

Editors note: The original version of this story said the Long Beach Water Department was returning some of the Measure M funds to residents. Long Beach Water Commissioners voted earlier this year to return all of the $30.8 million back to customers through bill credits. 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.