Wastewater Raconteur

Updated: Dec 28, 2019

As a pre-med student at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga in the 1980s, Glenn Acosta was determined to “not be complacent” and “to move ahead economically,” two goals he could attain by becoming a doctor. But once he completed his undergraduate degree in chemistry, he realized that he was choosing the medical field for the wrong reason.


“I was in love with the idea of making money, but not with the profession itself,” said Acosta, who works today as a senior engineer in the public information office of the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.


The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County serve the wastewater and solid waste needs of more than 5.6 million County residents. -- Sanitation Districts photo

When he looked around, Acosta observed that “civil engineering was kind of a cool profession,” one that would take good advantage of his aptitude for math and logic. And his degree in chemistry positioned him well to learn about water, wastewater and wastewater treatment. After working for several years as an engineering consultant, Acosta took a job with the Sanitation Districts as an operations engineer.


“I was drawn to the combination of chemistry and the tangibility of civil engineering,” said Acosta. “The idea of creating new infrastructure, of being involved with something people can actually see was very compelling.”


Glenn Acosta, primary information officer for the Sanitation Districts' Clearwater Project -- G. Acosta photo

Tunneling It Forward

Today, Acosta serves as the primary information officer for the Sanitation Districts’ new Clearwater Project, a massive, seven-year wastewater infrastructure upgrade for Los Angeles County.


The project plans to build a seven-mile-long, 18-foot-diameter tunnel to carry treated wastewater from the agency’s Joint Water Pollution Control Plant in Carson, Calif., to existing ocean outfalls on the coastline near the Los Angeles Harbor. The new concrete-reinforced tunnel will replace two smaller, aging wastewater tunnels built in the 1930s and 1950s, respectively, which do not comply with current seismic standards.


“The existing tunnels nearly reached their flow capacity several times in recent years,” said Acosta, who earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from UC Irvine, and a professional engineering license in chemical engineering. “The new tunnel will give us a safe, reliable way to dispose of treated wastewater in the future, even under the most severe weather conditions.”


The Sanitation Districts are currently working with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on a potential water purification project that could recycle a significant percentage of the agency’s current wastewater into drinking water. Even so, explained Acosta, the agency needs to be able to dispose reliably of treated wastewater, especially during peak storm flows, to protect public safety and the environment.


Acosta spent his early childhood in the colorful town of Yauco, Puerto Rico, also famous for its coffee.

Building a Foundation

Infrastructure – or lack thereof – has been a recurring theme in Acosta’s life.


Born in the small town of Yauco in southwestern Puerto Rico, he remembers a town whose key infrastructure –– highways, flood control, electrical distribution, telephone systems – seemed quite primitive by U.S. standards.


When Acosta was five, his father, a day laborer in the local sugar cane fields, won the local lottery, bought a house in Yauco, then moved his family to New York City for a better life. It was there, while attending school in a modern city, that Acosta began to appreciate the role that good infrastructure plays in the prosperity and well-being of a city and its residents.




Explainer-in-Chief

Today, Acosta spends his days preparing and distributing information about the Clearwater Project, leading public informational workshops and tours, and answering questions about the project.

Acosta and his colleague, Genesis Rodriquez, manage the public information tours for the Clearwater Project. Brooks McKinney photo

“People can’t see much of our wastewater infrastructure, but they count on it being there whether they know it or not,” he offered.


Indeed, the fact that much of the Clearwater project will take place underground – the tunnel depth will range from 30 to 460 feet – is a source of curiosity and concern for residents of earthquake-prone Los Angeles.


Going Deep

The Clearwater tunnel will be built using a massive Tunnel Boring Machine , a device used to excavate tunnels through rock and soil using a large, circular cutting head. TBMs have been used successfully in urban tunnel projects throughout the world, including the Chunnel under the English Channel, Canada’s Niagara Tunnel Project, and the Alaskan Way Tunnel in Seattle.


“Clearwater is not only an infrastructure project, but also a communications project,” said Acosta. “Explaining how the TBM builds the tunnel is pretty straightforward, but alleviating public concerns and preconceptions about potential vibration or noise from tunneling operations is much more challenging.”

Clearwater will use a Tunnel Boring Machine to build its new treated wastewater tunnel -- Crossrail Project photo

The Real Story

Acosta’s days begin in Rancho Santa Margarita, a town of about 48,000 residents 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. His community sits adjacent to Cleveland National Forest, an environment that offers natural serenity, distant views of the Orange County coastline, and most of all, room to think.


After a morning run, a scan of the day’s headlines and a cup of coffee, Acosta hops in a van pool for his daily commute to his office at the Sanitation Districts headquarters in Whittier, just east of downtown Los Angeles. The commute gives him a chance to read and, as he puts it, “indulge in his hobbies.”


Early morning views of Rancho Santa Margarita offer Acosta the serenity and inspiration he needs to do his best screenwriting. -- Takata Photography photo

By day, Acosta masquerades as Clearwater’s chief storyteller, but his true passion these days is screenwriting, a hobby he took up 15 years ago. During these twice-daily, hour-and-a-quarter van rides, he reviews and edits his screenplays, and plots his next imaginary adventure.


“I love a compelling story with unexpected twists,” he said.


Acosta’s first screenplay, the story of a man who is forced to relive some emotionally painful events from his past when he attends a class reunion, was selected as a semi-finalist in the 2015 Filmmakers International competition. Since then he has amassed more than 20 screenwriting honors including winning a second-place prize in the 2017 Cannes Screenplay Contest, and being selected as a semi-finalist in the 2018 Stage 32 annual TV pilot contest.


When asked if he has any tunnel-related disaster movies in the offing, he offered only a noncommittal smile.


Protecting the Future

One thing remains certain, however: Acosta is very proud of the role he plays in the dramatic Clearwater Project.


“I view this infrastructure project as making a difference to the people of Los Angeles County,” he said. “It’s a way to protect our beaches and waterways against spills or contamination that could negatively affect the Southern California way of life. I feel good being part of a project and a team that is working hard to make people’s lives better.”


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What questions do you have about how to modernize the nation's infrastructure? I'd love to address those question in a future profile. Please send your ideas to me at brooks@personsofinfrastructure.com. Thanks very much.

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