It was this past January when the roof support of the clearwell water tank at San Juan Capistrano’s Groundwater Recovery Plant gave way, requiring local officials to take it offline.
“Why is that important?” asked Laura Freese, a member of Santa Margarita Water District’s governing board. “Well, this is the way we get our water from the aquifer, our local water, our groundwater, and so we needed to get it back up really fast.”
Santa Margarita, which operates the plant as the town’s water utility agency, spent the next six months and roughly $1.8 million conducting repairs to the reservoir tank that holds about 320,000 gallons of drinking water.
“Within six months, this was back up and online again, which is just incredible. It’s a miracle,” Freese said in front of the restored clearwell on Friday, Oct. 27.
“While it was offline, we had to import 450 million gallons of water that cost us a lot more,” Freese added. “But the scarier part, really, is that we rely on our local water. Our local water right here—if there was a horrible natural crisis of some sort, and we couldn’t get imported water for a while, our local water here would let us survive for about a month.”
Speaking to The Capistrano Dispatch, Chief Plant Operator Tim O’Neal echoed Freese’s comments on the “budgetary hit” the district took while the plant was offline because of the clearwell’s restoration.
“The clearwell was down and the whole plant had to be off,” he said. “We had to buy more water from Metropolitan Water (District) … the Metropolitan Water is more expensive than the water that we produce here.”
Officials with the water district and City of San Juan Capistrano, including Mayor Howard Hart and Councilmember John Campbell, joined Freese and members of the public at the plant last Friday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the tank’s completed refurbishment.
“It’s up and running now. We’ve got drinking water galore,” said Freese, a former San Juan councilmember. “It’s beautifully cleaned up and I wanted to have this ribbon cutting not only to thank everybody involved in getting this done so quickly, but also show you, the people of San Juan Capistrano, what the people of Santa Margarita Water District can do.”
Addressing the plant’s future on Friday was Santa Margarita Board President Frank Ury, who explained that the plant, located near Descanso Park—where the Arroyo Trabuco and the San Juan creeks meet—was built in 2003 and is hitting a 20-year lifecycle.
“What we’re going to do, we’re going to take it from 2½ million gallons a day to 5 million gallons a day.” Ury said. “But what does that mean to you? It’s a really cool number. At the end of the day, think about it this way, in a year, what you’re going to do is you’re going to see a football field, a mile high of the water, produced by this plant.”
According to O’Neal, who led guests of the ribbon cutting on a tour of the facility, the plant officially came online in 2006, was rebuilt in 2011 and has operated continuously since 2015.
O’Neal said the effort to restore the clearwell was just one phase of a multi-step process to refurbish other parts of the plant, including the sand separators and the wash water tanks. Those projects, he said, have all been budgeted for within the district’s capital improvement plans (CIP).
Included in the CIP is a project to replace the plant’s reverse osmosis membranes, which are what clean the water before it ends up in the clearwell tank, O’Neal said.
“The water goes into there, goes through the reverse osmosis membranes, comes out of it and the permeated water, that’s we call the water leaving it—that is the water that’s been cleaned to sub-micron clean—and then from there, it exits this plant and then goes into the clearwell,” O’Neal said of the process.
“This is the heart of the plant right here, this is pretty much where all the magic happens,” O’Neal added about the plant’s reverse osmosis room.
O’Neal said the two trains, or units, that comprise the reverse osmosis system are in the process of being replaced.
Don Bunts, the deputy general manager for Santa Margarita, said the price tag for each train’s replacement is $1 million. ‘
Train A, O’Neal said, is currently offline, while Train B is working to push about 2 million gallons a day of potable water. Replacing each train, he added, will take months.
“We are working within the next year to have it replaced with a whole brand new system, all brand new membranes, all brand new pumps and everything,” O’Neal said. “And then that’s going to double our capacity.”