Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) is a leading provider of water, recycled water, and wastewater services over a 555‑square-mile area surrounding its headquarters in Perris, California. Roxanne Rountree, EMWD’s senior public affairs program manager, and Alfred Javier, its director of environmental and regulatory compliance, are on the front lines of the company’s efforts to prevent pharmaceuticals from entering their region’s water supply. In this interview, they tell Municipal Water Leader about EMWD's Sewer Smart Program, a comprehensive public information campaign that combines media outreach, classroom instruction, and the provision of alternative disposal methods for pharmaceuticals and other waste products.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions.
Roxanne Rountree: I am the senior public affairs program manager at EMWD and work in the district’s public and governmental affairs office. I began at EMWD in 2007 as a public affairs officer. I have spent almost 20 years in the communications field and am a veteran of the United States Navy.
Al Javier: I am EMWD’s director of environmental and regulatory compliance and have been engaged in this line of work with EMWD for 31 years. I started out working in the laboratory, focusing on water quality testing, and then moved over to a senior position on the environmental side, eventually becoming a manager and then director. I am also an associate faculty member at Mount San Jacinto College, where I teach water quality courses.
Municipal Water: Please tell us about EMWD and its services.
Roxanne Rountree: EMWD was incorporated in 1950 to provide water, wastewater, and recycled water services. Today, we serve almost 1 million people over a 555‑square-mile service area. This includes eight cities and several unincorporated areas. We also provide sewer services for some cities to which we do not provide water service. We have 246,000 sewer service customers and 153,000 water customers.
The company is headquartered in Perris, California, which is midway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, and its service area encompasses southwestern Riverside County. It reaches to Temecula in the south, Moreno Valley in the north, Mead Valley in the west, and San Jacinto in the east.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about EMWD’s Sewer Smart Program.
Roxanne Rountree: The Sewer Smart Program was an initiative that we developed internally and launched in 2017 to educate our customers about what should and should not be flushed and poured down drains. We came up with taglines that we felt would catch the attention of consumers, which were “Don’t Be a Pain in the Drain” and “Don’t Rush to Flush.” Our objective was to improve the public’s awareness of what wastewater systems were designed for and how using them inappropriately can impede their functionality and negatively affect the water supply for everyone. It is important that our customers understand that any time a faucet, washing machine, dishwasher, garbage disposal, shower, or toilet is used, the resulting waste flows through the sewer system, arrives at one of our four wastewater reclamation plants, and is used again as recycled water. Educating customers on the materials that can appropriately be flushed or drained through these systems helps protect their own infrastructure as well as EMWD’s pipes, pumps, facilities, and personnel. When our customers are sewer smart, it reduces our maintenance and treatment costs and helps us preserve a sustainable water supply.
Al Javier: Another major part of our initiative is informing the public about how pharmaceuticals can end up in our water supply and how to properly dispose them to avoid this result.
Municipal Water Leader: If medications are flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain, how might they enter the water supply?
Al Javier: EMWD collects wastewater and treats it before it is released or reused. We have a water system that uses recycled water. That means that the water that is being released can eventually leach into the groundwater system. We also have seasonal discharges into the local Santa Ana River. These sorts of water transfers can contain pharmaceuticals if the water has not been adequately treated.
Municipal Water Leader: When did EMWD become aware that this was an issue that required attention?
Al Javier: EMWD’s primary goal has always been protecting public health and safety while delivering water, wastewater, and recycled water services. In the not-too-distant past, wastewater systems were somewhat widely viewed by the public as a general trash disposal. However, federal and state policymakers, as well as the industry itself, have paid more and more attention to what is being put into our sewer systems and what is emerging from them. For example, in 2008, we worked with the Santa Ana Water Project Authority to form a task force to look at constituents of emerging concern (CECs) in the area’s sewer systems. The group included wastewater treatment dischargers as well as our regional board. The task force carried out several studies that focused on CECs, microconstituents, trace organics, and pharmaceuticals. The overall effort included a public education forum called Your SoCal Tap Water, which is a blog that EMWD and other member agencies contribute to with the objective of further informing the public about how these chemicals enter the sewer system and eventually affect water resources.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you describe the alternative disposal methods that are encouraged through the Sewer Safe Program?
Roxanne Rountree: We’ve partnered with the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day program, which establishes designated collection stations and times for people to drop off hazardous or otherwise undesirable items such as unused pharmaceuticals. EMWD also provides disposal pouches that are designed to deactivate medications, whether in pill, patch, or liquid form, so that they can then be disposed of along with regular household waste. We also provide our customers with access to information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and similar state regulatory entities.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there any danger that disposing of pharmaceuticals via pouches that eventually end up in garbage dumps could still lead to leaching into groundwater?
Al Javier: In California today, and I suspect throughout the nation as well, municipal landfill sites are lined with multilayer systems to prevent exactly that and also have multilayer monitoring to watch for leaching. In all likelihood, leaching will not be an issue in any properly maintained solid waste landfill.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the educational element of the Sewer Smart Program.
Roxanne Rountree: Most people turn on their water and flush their toilets without questioning where the water comes from or where it goes thereafter. Only a small
percentage of the public has a full appreciation of all that goes into ensuring the provision of safe drinking water and the disposal of wastewater. The solution to that is education, and that’s really what the Sewer Smart Program is all about. The program includes social media posts, videos, community presentations, and more. We also host educational tours at our San Jacinto Regional Water Reclamation Facility, where we also have a freestanding schoolhouse where classes can participate in hands-on educational activities.
Al Javier: EMWD has an excellent education program. We have done a lot through local schools, teaching students about the water cycle. We have found that this is particularly effective at the grade school level, because it helps children develop lifelong sustainable habits.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there any sense in which conservation practices make it more difficult to manage and treat pharmaceuticals in wastewater?
Al Javier: Conservation does lead to some water quality issues. A higher flush or drain flow dilutes wastewater, which contributes to the natural aspects of the treatment process. Less flow means a more highly concentrated wastewater flow—the phenomenon is known as organic loading. More highly concentrated wastewater takes more effort to treat. We typically do not add water to dilute it, but but instead use slightly more chemicals and energy in the treatment process.
Municipal Water Leader: Which other entities are working on this problem?
Al Javier: This isn’t new for water agencies. There are many different entities looking at these sorts of issues, including the Association of California Water Agencies, which has helped greatly to distribute information about the issue.
Municipal Water Leader: Has it been state regulators or the industry that have led the response to this issue?
Al Javier: EMWD and many other agencies in the industry have played an active and responsible role, but the state probably played the leading role. One of the first things that usually occurs when an issue like this emerges is that the appropriate state regulatory body develops the scientific methods to test and measure the problem. This evaluation has been done and continues today, as we all study the effects. I want to underscore that EMWD and its counterparts throughout the state have been engaged on this issue and are committed to doing something about it to ensure the health and safety of our customers for years to come. It truly is a joint effort between the regulators and the regulated community, and all are committed to it.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the primary steps consumers should take to improve water quality and sewer health?
Al Javier: The only things that should enter water and wastewater infrastructure are water, water-soluble human waste, and traditional toilet paper. Anything else is going to be harmful to the infrastructure and eventually also to the water supply. Consumers need to remember to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals and hazardous waste, such as pesticides, herbicides, petroleum products, and other poisons. There are collection programs for all these things, and it is incumbent on the public to responsibly use those programs rather than disposing these materials in the sewer system.
Municipal Water Leader: What should all EMWD customers know about pharmaceuticals and the water supply?
Roxanne Rountree: It’s important for customers to realize that while it may have been common or even encouraged in the past to dispose of medications and vitamins via the sewer system, today we better understand the direct correlation between wastewater and fresh water sources and the negative consequences of disposing of pharmaceuticals in this manner. They need to know about alternative disposal methods.
Al Javier: Proper pharmaceutical disposal needs to become common knowledge. Customers need to understand that whatever goes down the drain will eventually be in the environment. That’s why the water cycle educational initiatives are so important and effective. The concepts are fairly easy to understand, but we want to encourage people to take the time to actually think about them.
Roxanne Rountree is EMWD’s senior public affairs program manager.
Alfred Javier is EMWD’s director of environmental and regulatory compliance.