A California project that renders highly treated sewage drinkable is hoping to lessen Orange County's dependence on costly imported supplies. Officials overwhelmingly approved the first stage of a controversial $600-million plan to turn sewage into drinking water. About 60 percent of the current water supply come from local ground water, while the rest is imported.

Proponents say the process would create cleaner water than what flows out of most faucets now. Critics, however, charge that the public-works project - the most costly in the county's history - is too expensive and reliable water is already available. They also contend that although the sanitation district would be sending a smaller volume of treated sewage into the ocean, it would contain higher concentrations of pathogens.