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Toilet-to-tap water programs gain support in California

Support for a controversial process that purifies wastewater into drinking water is gaining momentum in California despite a major "gross" factor.

California's Governor and leaders are pushing for alternative water-saving measures that include so-called "toilet to tap" programs as the state's historic drought depletes its reservoirs, aquifers, lakes and rivers.

"It is the cleanest water we have in the state of California," Mike Markus, Orange County Water District general manager, told CBS News' Chelsea Edwards.

One Orange County treatment plant, built in 2008, is the largest of its kind in the world. It is expanding production from 70 million to 100 million gallons per day.

"We're able to provide enough water for nearly 850,000 people a year," said Markus.

Waste water that would normally drain into the Pacific Ocean goes through a rigorous three-step purification process that includes microfiltration, exposure to UV light and hydrogen peroxide, which kills everything left behind.

Officials say the water treated at the Orange County plant exceeds state and federal standards. It's so clean, some people complain the water actually has no taste.

The purified water is pumped into underground reservoirs before it makes it to household taps.

"We can produce the water for less than the cost of imported water," said Markus, "and probably about half the cost of what it would take to desalinate seawater."

Experts say public perception is the biggest challenge. Education and transparency are the key.

"The term that has been coined, 'from the toilet to the tap,'" said Yoram Cohen, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA, "is omitting the fact that there is a lot of treatment in between, so it gives the wrong perception."

Officials are hoping the Orange County facility will serve as a model for other drought-stricken communities.

A panel of experts is working on a report, due next year, for the California state legislature. It will establish a framework for programs to allow treated water to be pumped directly to households.