Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Water District: Planning for Future Development Through Septic-to-Sewer Conversions

The Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) provides water, wastewater, and recycled water service to more than 825,000 people living and working within a 555‑square mile service area in western Riverside County, California. To ensure that it can provide these essential services far into the future despite the challenges of drought, population growth, and development, it carries out a variety of master planning and strategic planning activities. One significant area of wastewater planning relates to septic-to-sewer conversions, which must be accomplished with future decades of growth and development in mind so that the infrastructure that is planned and built is adequate to handle all the flows an area could potentially generate. In this interview, Joe Mouawad, the assistant general manager of EMWD, speaks with Municipal Water Leader about EMWD’s planning efforts, specifically those related to sewer conversions. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Joe Mouawad: I have approximately 30 years of experience in the water industry. I have an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Cal Poly Pomona and a master’s degree in engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles. I’ve been with EMWD for the past 14 years. Initially, I served as the director of engineering, and over the years, I’ve had the privilege to take on additional responsibilities. Over the past 4 years, I have served as the assistant general manager. I oversee the district’s planning, engineering, and construction functions. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about EMWD as an agency. 

Joe Mouawad: We serve approximately 550 square miles of western Riverside County, an area with a population of over 825,000. We are distinctive in that we are both a retailer and a wholesaler providing water, wastewater, and recycled water services. We serve seven cities and large incorporated areas in Riverside County. We are the sixth-largest retail water agency in the state. 

Municipal Water Leader: What does planning look like for an agency like EMWD? 

Joe Mouawad: Our planning efforts occur on multiple levels, including strategic planning, master planning, and facilities infrastructure planning. Strategic planning occurs with guidance from our board of directors, which assists us in developing our long-term vision and policies that help shape our objectives and priorities. Master planning is the process in which we evaluate the optimum approach to expand all our product lines to accommodate growth, including wastewater, recycled water, and potable water. In conjunction with master planning, we perform facilities infrastructure planning. We use the land-use plans that are adopted by the cities and the county to develop plans that serve as a road map for our facilities expansions all the way until buildout, which is currently anticipated to occur beyond 2065. Currently, we’re only about 38 percent built out. Based on those planning efforts, we develop and prioritize our capital improvement program and funding strategy on a yearly basis. 

We look at the evolution of our services, especially recycled water. We pride ourselves on our strategic objective of using 100 percent of the recycled water we produce. Over the past few years, we have used over 95 percent of the recycled water we produced. Currently, approximately 65 percent of our recycled water sales are to the agricultural community. As we continue to grow, we will need to evolve with our customer base. We are currently advancing projects for indirect potable reuse and for replenishing our groundwater basin with purified and recycled water. 

We employ innovative technologies and continually evaluate emerging technology that may benefit us. There is a brackish groundwater basin in the Perris area, and we currently have two operational reverse osmosis (RO) brackish desalination facilities and are constructing a third, which will come online late this summer. The salt that is removed from the brackish groundwater is discharged into the Inland Empire Brine Line and exported to the Pacific Ocean. Not only are we producing local water to reduce our reliance on imported supplies, but creating that salt offset allows us to continue expanding our recycled water system. It also prevents the migration of brackish water to adjacent higher-quality groundwater aquifers. We are currently pilot testing a closed-circuit RO system to determine whether we can increase recovery and reduce brine discharge. 

We are also embarking on a North Perris groundwater contamination remediation program, which will involve treating and containing a series of comingled contamination plumes. We were fortunate enough to receive $45 million in grant funding from the state, the largest grant we have ever received. That project is underway and involves advancing a series of wells in the Moreno Valley and the North Perris area. 

We also do focused area planning. For example, we look for opportunities to plan the expansion of our wastewater collection system, including pipelines and lift stations, into specific areas within our service boundaries that have legacy issues like septic systems. During the planning process, we identify proposed developments that may come to fruition adjacent to those septic system communities and collaborate with their developers to advance an infrastructure sewer solution to accommodate current and future flow generation. 

Municipal Water Leader: How do you plan for the funding of your future operations and expansions? 

Joe Mouawad: We have an active grants and loans initiative and have been successful in securing significant external funding on the federal, state, and local levels to support our programs and initiatives. Those external funding opportunities are critical. They enable projects that otherwise would be impossible, providing a long-term benefit to the community. 

Advocacy on multiple levels—federal, state, and local—is a key to success. We meet with representatives of funding agencies on a regular basis, including in Sacramento; in Washington, DC; and with local agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC), which incentivizes local projects that reduce reliance on imported supplies. 

Advancing certain strategic projects to construction requires significant amounts of funding support. For example, we were able to secure $22.5 million from the state to support the construction of our third desalter, which is under construction. We also have an agreement with the MWDSC that will provide us with a subsidy once the system is operational. That subsidy, over 25 years, will add up to over $27 million. We strategically position these projects, including upfront planning, environmental reviews, and necessary property acquisitions, so that we can successfully secure funding when opportunities like these arise. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the septic-to-sewer conversions that EMWD is carrying out and their importance in wastewater planning. 

Construction work being done on the septic-to-sewer converison.

Joe Mouawad: In certain areas within our service boundaries, such as Quail Valley, a community of about 3,600 parcels with over 4,000 residents, there are failing septic systems that pose a public health concern. Because of those conditions, in 2006, the Regional Water Quality Control Board imposed a prohibition on any additional septic tank systems in Quail Valley. In 2005, we initiated planning efforts to find the most cost-effective way to extend our sewer collection system to that community, recognizing that this was a legacy issue that would require external funding. 

We were able to work with a developer that was planning a community adjacent to Quail Valley to oversize the sewer collection system, including a lift station, so that it could accommodate additional flows from Quail Valley. With the help of the state, the Santa Ana Watershed Protection Agency (SAWPA), the City of Menifee, and other stakeholders, we were able to secure almost $13 million of grant funding to support the construction of the sewer system. In the first phase of the program, we converted more than 255 parcels from septic to sewer. The remaining phases of the program will require continued state and federal funding support. We are working closely with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board to form a funding advocacy task force with other entities, including the county, the cities, and other agencies that have an interest in Quail Valley to advocate and solicit funding support. 

What was key to the Quail Valley septic-to-sewer conversion was to make sure that the extension of the regional facilities, the offsite sewer collection system, and the lift station was sufficient not only to serve the first phase of septic-to-sewer conversion, but to serve the total flows that would ultimately be connected to the sewer collection system in the future. 

Municipal Water Leader: How do you predict the size and scale of future development? 

Joe Mouawad: We work closely with development community and land-use agencies to better understand the projects they are planning, including the proposed development density, the phasing, the product lines, and the anticipated wastewater flow generation. In addition, we use land-use plans for areas that are currently on septic systems to anticipate the potential generation of wastewater from those areas. At times, future development may take several years to occur, so we phase our wastewater collection system accordingly. 

In addition to the conversion in Quail Valley, there have been other similar initiatives. In Temecula wine country, we worked with the county and the vintners to extend our wastewater collection system. The county developed a plan for wine country that involved significant growth and the development of hospitality services, including additional restaurants and lodging, in an area that at that point relied exclusively on septic systems. However, due to groundwater conditions, the county’s plan could not be implemented unless there was a sewer system in place. We received funding from the county and the vintners to extend the sewer to Temecula wine country to accommodate the area’s development needs and the county’s economic plan. 

A few years ago, we completed a septic-to-sewer conversion for a community called Enchanted Heights that straddles the city of Perris and an unincorporated area of Riverside County. This area had been on a septic system that contributed to groundwater contamination that ultimately affected downstream potable wells. We worked with the state and the City of Perris to secure the funding necessary to convert that entire community to our sewer collection system. We made certain that the system was sized properly based on the flow generation that we anticipated; we worked with the community residents, the local municipality, the city, and the county to understand the zoning; and we worked with the developers to anticipate which future developments might connect to the proposed sewer system extension. 

Municipal Water Leader: Is it important to regularly communicate with your rate payers about planning issues such as these? 

Joe Mouawad: We perform extensive public outreach, particularly relating to cost. We often hold community meetings, sometimes in both English and Spanish, depending on the demographics of the community. In the case of Quail Valley, we also sent out mailers and worked closely with community leaders who then went door to door, informing residents about the program, its benefits to the community, and the schedule and letting them know that we needed their assistance to make the program successful. Ultimately, residents needed to allow us to come onto their property to disconnect the septic tanks and connect their households to the sewer. We were pleased that we were able to get the cooperation and assistance of the owners of all the lots we needed to convert in Quail Valley and to deliver the project without any capital cost burden on the residents. By securing funding, we converted the systems at no cost to residents. They are obligated to pay a monthly fee for sewer use, but that is often lower than the cost of pumping and maintaining a failing septic tank. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are the next steps for EMWD’s wastewater planning? 

Joe Mouawad: We are working to convert additional areas within Quail Valley from septic to sewer, and we continue to pursue additional external funding opportunities. Specifically, we’re looking at an area identified as subarea 4, which is challenging because of its shallow bedrock and rolling terrain. The conditions are not ideal for a conventional gravity sewer system. We are currently advancing a planning effort with the support of the State Water Resources Control Board, which provided us with $500,000 of grant funding, and SAWPA, which provided us with $200,000 of grant funding. With that funding, we are looking not only at a conventional gravity sewer collection system, but also alternative technologies such as vacuum sewer systems and grinder pumps or a hybrid of all three technologies. In addition, we are developing the phasing of a sewer system within subarea 4. 

Joe Mouawad is the assistant general manager of planning, engineering, and construction for EMWD. For more information, please visit www.emwd.org.