WATSONVILLE -- The Watsonville City Council will decide Tuesday whether to approve a deal with UC Santa Cruz to establish an experimental wastewater treatment laboratory at the city's treatment plant.

The laboratory, called WaterLab, would occupy extra space at the city's award-winning Water Resource Center. The lab, which would focus on teaching and research on sustainable water treatment processes, would be the first such partnership between the city and the university.

"It's going to put Watsonville on the map for innovative water technologies and seeing how they can be applied in the real world," said Steve Palmisano, director of Watsonville's Public Works and Utilities Department. "It's a great bridge between the academic world and the real world."

Built in 2010 for $10 million, Watsonville's Water Resources Center stands out with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The experimental lab would be designed, built and operated by UCSC students, said WaterLab's director, Brent Haddad, a professor of environmental science and director of UCSC's Center for Integrated Water Research.

"I'd like to be able to demonstrate that these advanced water treatment techniques exist and are reliable," Haddad said. "The best way to do that is to show the world that students can build them and they will work."

About 300 students have been involved with the project, Haddad said. It's open to students of all majors who are interested in sustainable water supply. He hopes to have the lab operating this summer, if the lease is approved.

While the technology needed to purify wastewater for a variety of uses already exists, Haddad said, every system is different, such as how dirty the water is and how clean it needs to become.

Haddad said the system that students have designed for WaterLab is a five-step process to produce drinkable water. The first step is slow sand filtration, which removes many impurities. Then it goes through a process to remove elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Next are advanced filtration, reverse osmosis and, finally, ultraviolet radiation to prevent microscopic organisms from reproducing, which effectively kills them in about an hour.

After those steps are complete, WaterLab will test the results to see if the water is, in fact, potable, and then it will be treated again in the city's normal plant.

"There aren't a lot of plants that have a goal of potable," Haddad said. "When you look to the end of the 21st century, that's going to be a big need."

WaterLab will also be used to test other experimental processes apart from the five being implemented to make wastewater potable. Haddad said the project is trying to run the lab without grid-provided electricity.
In addition, the lab will be off the financial grid.

"There will be no out of pocket costs; it's basically self-funded," said Kevin Silviera, Watsonville's wastewater division manager. UCSC will pay the city a one-time fee of $18,000 to lease the extra space at the Water Resources Center, at 500 Clearwater Lane, for five years.

As global need for freshwater increases, the technology of turning sewage into drinking water could become indispensable, and public opinion will be playing catch up.

"The public perception has always been that we don't want a toilet-to-tap system," Silviera said. "The science is there, no problem, but there's just a lot more work to do make that palatable. No pun intended."

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the lease agreement at its 6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday, at the Watsonville Council Chamber, 275 Main St.

Follow Sentinel reporter Ketti Wilhelm on Twitter at Twitter.com/KettiWilhelm