In summary

We can safely use recycled water to drink, irrigate parks, support environmental uses, grow crops and produce energy. The state should invest at least $500 million in local projects.

By Jennifer West, Special to CalMatters

Jennifer West is the managing director of WateReuse California, JWest@watereuse.org.

Climate change is forcing our state to reimagine our water supply future. How do we do that? Easy — we reuse water.  

Just like recycling a plastic bottle, we can safely use recycled water to drink, irrigate parks, support environmental uses, grow crops, produce energy, and much more. More than just a new source of water, water recycling projects provide a degree of local water independence. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature are considering a drought funding package this summer that will use some of the budget surplus to mitigate drought effects and prepare our state for our new water-scarce future.  The governor and the Legislature need to continue their commitment to recycled water by making a significant investment of at least $500 million in the package. 

With recycled water, California communities don’t have to rely on imported water, which can be cut off during severe droughts or a serious earthquake. As climate change accelerates, we must continue to prepare for more extreme weather patterns, higher temperatures, stressed ecosystems and increasing competition for water. Historically, most of our water has come from snowpack or groundwater, but it’s not that simple anymore. 

Right now, many communities in California are planning water reuse projects that will transform our state’s water supply, create tens of thousands of new jobs, help us become more drought resilient, localize water supplies and fight climate change. Here are a few examples of projects in the planning stages:

  • 30% of the City of Los Angeles’ future water supply 
  • More than 16 billion gallons per year of recycled water for agricultural irrigation, recharging groundwater aquifers and environmental preservation in the Sacramento region
  • 5 million gallons per day to replenish groundwater basins for agricultural and drinking water in Monterey
  • 8 million gallons per day in Silicon Valley — enough to supply 74,000 homes.

California is a national leader in recycled water. Our Legislature and regulatory agencies have prioritized recycled water policies to help increase its use statewide. The state uses approximately 728,000 acre feet a year in recycled water, but this amount is expected to at least double in coming years, primarily due to the expansion of “potable reuse,” that is, using treated wastewater for drinking water. 

The Orange County Water District and the Orange County Sanitation District jointly operate the world’s largest potable reuse facility in the world — the Groundwater Replenishment System. This system provides enough new water for 850,000 residents and has become an essential element of the local Orange County water supply. The system treats wastewater by using a three-step purification process consisting of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. The process produces high-quality water that meets or exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards. 

The state water board is developing “direct potable reuse” regulations that should be complete by 2023. These regulations will allow this highly purified recycled water to integrate more directly into the drinking water system.  Many more potable reuse projects will be possible once these regulations are complete, but they can’t move forward quickly without a significant funding infusion. 

There are ample projects that can immediately use this funding. The State Water Resources Control Board has an $800 million list of short-term recycled water projects, and $3 billion in long-term funding requests from agencies throughout the state.

The current drought is severe, but policymakers and water managers know the situation could be much worse without the previous investments in water recycling. There is simply no better investment to make now than providing at least $500 million in funding for recycled water, which will have immediate and long-term water supply benefits for California communities.  

The future is now.

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