A Guru’s Life: Earle Hartling

UPDATE: In response to a number of requests for information regarding the various aspects of the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County’s water reuse program, a report for Fiscal Year 2014-15 has been prepared. This report is the twenty-sixth of its kind and includes plant-by-plant descriptions and diagrams of the various recycled water distribution systems, tables of effluent water quality, lists of the users and quantities used, and future plans for expanding the use of recycled water, among other subjects. This document can be accessed here: http://www.lacsd.org/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?blobid=12648

By Sayd Randle

Earle HartlingEarle Hartling’s tours of the Los Angeles County Sanitation District’s water recycling facilities used to end with a dash of illegal showmanship. When his group reached the plant’s tertiary treated effluent stream, Hartling would look around, fill a cup, and take a hefty swig – in direct violation of California’s Title 22 regulations.

“I’d say, ‘Look, I monitor this every single day, I know what’s in it, I know we’ve been doing tests on everything, it meets the drinking water standards,’” he explains. This performance of faith in his product’s safety was apparently effective. “They would all look around at the end and go, ‘OK, this looks like you got it,’” he recalls with a smile.

When I point out that tours at nearby reclamation plants – including Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System and West Basin’s Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility – end with effluent samples for all, he’s quick to explain the difference – with characteristic humor. “Those people are doing RO [reverse osmosis] water, so don’t think that’s any big shakes. If you drink tertiary water, that’s a man’s water.”

Hartling, a 35-year veteran of the Sanitation Districts, has made a career of convincing water wholesalers, retailers, and consumers that using recycled water is not only safe but also desirable. These days, he usually doesn’t drink the water on the tours – the steady stream of wrist slaps from liability-minded coworkers took their toll. But he still seems to relish the work of pitching his product, using jokes, puns, stories, and occasional showboating to close his sale.

A native Southern Californian, Hartling found his way to the wastewater industry in 1981, when he jumped directly from his Master’s of Environmental Engineering at Loyola Marymount University into a job as a “junior lackey” at the Sanitation Districts. The turnaround was quick. “I took my oral exams on Friday, graduated on Saturday, and started work on Tuesday,” he recounts with a laugh.

While much of his job in the early days centered on monitoring the existing recycled water infrastructure, he also worked steadily towards expanding the network. The results have been impressive. In 1981, the Sanitation Districts reused just over 40,000 acre-feet of recycled water per year between its groundwater replenishment and direct use programs, and served 19 distribution sites. In fiscal year 2013-4 (the most recent year for which complete data are publicly available from the Sanitation Districts), those figures stood at 102,364 acre-feet and 757 sites.

It’s easy to list the external factors that helped drive interest in recycled water over those years. Continued Southern California population growth, repeated droughts across the American West, and the ongoing uncertainty about the fate of California’s Bay-Delta are only the most obvious contributors. But in telling the story of his career, Hartling makes clear that even with all of these factors in place, the expansion of the recycled water distribution network across L.A. County was hardly an inevitable development. The sprawling county is a patchwork of 88 incorporated cities, served by almost as many water retailers (themselves fed by a handful of water wholesalers). In his early days, many retailers wanted recycled water, but lacked the funds to build the pipes to connect customers to the county’s recycled water sources.

To close these gaps, Hartling and his colleagues brought together wholesalers and retailers to devise, fund, and build regional systems for recycled water distribution. The work wasn’t easy – Hartling compares it to herding cats, including some cats with unusually poor fiscal and managerial skills. But the years of cajoling, meeting, and compromising eventually bore fruit, in the form of an extensive purple pipe network. The Century Recycled Water Project – now overseen by Central Basin Municipal Water District, a southern L.A. County water wholesaler – was an early partnership success story. Completed in 1992, the initial pipeline stretched 26 miles across Downey, South Gate, Paramount, and a handful of other jurisdictions in the mid-cities area. Today the system delivers over 4000 acre-feet of effluent per year to 181 sites.

Much of Hartling’s recycled water promotional work has been carried out among water and wastewater professionals, working through the fussy details that go into siting and scaling infrastructure. But he’s also long made a point to champion the water source among the general public, speaking to Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and offering tours of the wastewater treatment facilities to school groups and other interested residents. In addition, he’s tried to spread this outward-facing approach among his colleagues. “In the mid-80s, we started a Toastmasters Club here,” he explains. “Because engineers can’t speak in public.” The Toastmasters group fed the agency’s Speaker’s Bureau, and helped bolster Hartling’s marketing and public relations efforts on behalf of their system.

In 1991, he was promoted to the role of Water Recycling Coordinator, the job he’s held ever since. In addition to his ongoing work overseeing and promoting the County’s recycled water network, he’s cultivated a reputation as an avuncular public face of the industry. Readers familiar with his “Ask the Guru” column in the newsletter of WaterReuse’s Los Angeles Chapter know Hartling as the kind guy who likes to splice crisp technical explanations with winking humor. “Think back to those long-ago summer days when, as a kid, you spent all day splashing around in the public swimming pool,” he wrote in an October 2014 column about washing after contact with Title 22 water. “The water that filled that pool originally was drinking water and approved for full-body contact, but you’d certainly want a shower after THAT.”

Hartling’s job gave him a battle line perspective on the resistance that plagued recycled water projects across Southern California throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. While media accounts often focus on the notion of “innate” human distaste for drinking reclaimed sewage, Hartling’s stories suggest that local politics can play even greater role in shaping public acceptance of the water source, particularly when it comes to potable reuse. Recalling the fight over the Sanitation Districts’ proposed Upper San Gabriel water recycling facility (an indirect potable reuse project), he emphasizes the role of Miller Brewing Company in ginning up public resistance:

“Unfortunately, the Miller brewery was located in the general vicinity of where they wanted to – where the water was going to be spread. And they would have maybe 3% recycled water in their groundwater, for their beer making. And they went crazy. And decided to kill that project. And they took the financial weight of their parent company Phillip Morris – the tobacco company – and fought that project to a standstill. It was about three years. It was a legal and PR battle. So they went to the press and said, ‘this is gonna cause cancer,’ they sort of under the table funded a citizens’ group, ‘Citizens for Clean Water,’ that was being run by a political big shot in the Valley … they coined the term, I think it was Roger Ailes, that came up with ‘toilet to tap.’”

Hartling and his colleagues fought back, hosting public meetings and facilities tours and meeting with the editorial boards of local newspapers. In addition to using his own body to demonstrate his faith in the product’s safety by sipping the tertiary water on tours, Hartling touted the Sanitation Districts’ monitoring programs and epidemiological data. He recalls these efforts as effective at changing most minds – “almost overnight, real public outcry disappeared” – but due to the cost of ongoing legal quibbling over the project’s EIR, the project was eventually called off.

In the years that followed, he watched proposed indirect potable reuse projects become political footballs for city council and mayoral candidates in the cities of San Diego and L.A. He also encountered activists who publicly questioned the safety of recycled water, while privately admitting that their real distaste was for the urban expansion the new water source would facilitate. These opportunistic tactics proved effective: early the early 2000s, both L.A.’s and San Diego’s plans for potable reuse were shelved. Taken together, the projects’ failures left him convinced of the importance of inoculating future projects from similar backlash by reaching out to civic and community groups to explain the technology early and often.

This was the advice he gave colleagues at the Orange County Water and Sanitation Districts when they began planning their Groundwater Replenishment System. They followed his advice to the letter. “They co-opted every possible kind of organized resistance that could possibly come up,” he recalls. “They got the Archbishop of the Catholic Church to bless the project, plus just about every single civic association … they just plowed everything under. There was no one left to oppose.” In 2008, the GRS opened to media fanfare rather than public protests, underlining the effectiveness of the outreach.

Today, long-term programs of community engagement on recycled water projects are widely accepted as industry “best practices,” particularly in California. But barriers still remain to further expanding both potable and non-potable reuse. Hartling expresses frustration at the cyclical nature of interest in his product: “As soon as it rains, interest goes away. The longer it stays dry, the more the general public will accept. People just go back and forth.” While he describes the recycled water industry as taking a tactical approach to these patterns, he admits that he encounters shortsighted, weather-driven thinking among his colleagues. “We’re not immune to it either. When it rains, boards of directors will put projects on the shelf.”

Hartling also admits that established patterns of development make some areas of L.A. County unable to tap into the recycled water network. While tertiary effluent now waters city parks, golf courses, and industrial operations at many sites on the west and east sides of L.A. County, a sizeable swathe in the center receives none. “We’ve never been able to connect the two [sides of the network] because through South L.A., through Watts, there’s absolutely nothing green,” he explains. “Big green over here at LAX, big green over here at Cerritos and Downey and Paramount, but there is absolutely nothing, nothing to hook up to, so there’s no reason to go through that area with recycled water because there are no customers there.”

A quick glance at a map confirms this assessment, revealing a remarkably park poor stretch of cityscape between the 110 and 710 freeways. It also raises questions of equity and path dependency. Could a lack of access to this water source stymie future efforts to build and sustain new parks in these underserved areas? Hartling has no easy solution here, but expresses hope that his steady work to expand the network will eventually expand its reach into all of county’s jurisdictions.

Familiar with the entrenched barriers that limit the expansion of recycled water networks, Hartling urges dogged persistence when he meets with up-and-coming workers in the wastewater industry. Recounting his go-to advice for student interns at the Sanitation Districts, he emphasizes the benefits of chipping away at resistance to innovation:

“Find a problem, find the solution. Once you’ve found your position, look for a problem to solve within your employer’s sphere of influence.  For me, no one was really pushing water reuse 35 years ago when I started, so I just worked it into my daily job efforts. After a while, it became institutionalized and we now, as an agency, take great pride in our water recycling program. Think outside of the box to find the problems and the solutions with this caveat: not all businesses, agencies or managers will be receptive to non-standard thinking, so be prepared to get shot-down a few times or more. I still do. But if you hang on long enough, as I have, you’ll most likely see one of your crazy ideas eventually become the CEO’s idea, and that’s often when you’ll see it actually come to fruition.”

He also encourages the interns to seek out the satisfaction that comes with doing work that benefits society – even when those advantages go widely unnoticed. “We are able to create enough water for hundreds of thousands of people where there was only waste before, all the while reducing energy consumption and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding having to pump an equal amount of imported water into the L.A. Basin,” he says of the Sanitation Districts. “Even though few people realize the magnitude of benefits they’re receiving from our environmental efforts, I still know.”

It’s no exaggeration to describe Hartling as a true believer in his efforts to expand the production and use of recycled water in the region. He clearly sees this work as an essential public service for an increasingly water stressed region. “It just makes sense. It’s just the right thing to do, living here,” he tells me earnestly when I ask him why he likes water recycling so much. Then, characteristically, he switches registers to remind me that all the water – recycled in his facilities or not – was once “dinosaur pee.”


Sayd Randle is an environmental anthropologist author and researcher .

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