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How California Could Develop New Water Supplies

California assembly member Rich Gordon talks about a new report examining how the state can make the most of stormwater and water recycling and reuse to increase water supplies in the future.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An engineer fills a container with recycled water at the Advanced Water Purification Facility in San Diego. The pilot project is part of a $2.5-billion plan to recycle 83 million gallons of wastewater a day for drinking by 2035, about one-third of the city's supply.Gregory Bull, Associated Press

As California endures the current drought and faces a future with increased population and the likelihood of climate-induced changes to water availability, leaders are researching the best options to increase water supply.

Assembly member Rich Gordon, whose home turf is Silicon Valley, chairs an Assembly Select Committee on Water Consumption and Alternative Sources. In March the committee released a report, New Sources for California’s Water Supply, that looks at water supply possibilities for the state.

The report found that despite mounting pressure on water sources, “California could have all the water it needs – we just need proper planning and investments to use our water more efficiently and wisely.” The report examines potential sources such as desalination, stormwater capture and wastewater recycling. It also tackles issues with centralized and decentralized water reuse systems.

The committee found that although the state should pursue multiple options for increasing water supply, not all sources of water are equal and desalination – in particular – should be an option of last resort.

Water Deeply spoke with Gordon about the committee’s key findings, the water supply options with the greatest potential and what obstacles remain for developing these water sources.

Water Deeply: How did this report come about?

Rich Gordon: We held hearings around the state looking at a variety of issues. We started off with a baseline information about climate change and what we should be looking at around drought and weather patterns. That verified that we will not have sufficient water unless we manage it correctly, given the dynamics of climate change.

We then held hearings on desalination, water reuse and recycling. We looked at some technology-related issues, too. The report is really a summation of the information we gathered.

Water Deeply: What was the biggest takeaway from your findings?

Rich Gordon: The most critical is that California, if we managed our water better – and that would include stormwater capture, doing recycling and reuse, and continuing a strong conservation program – we could have sufficient water moving forward. We felt that those were areas that were really right for further investment to capture water that we aren’t currently using.

Water Deeply: What about desalination?

Rich Gordon: We also looked at desalination and we concluded that it works in certain places but is not necessarily the first thing you need to do.

It is both expensive and there are environmental challenges to doing desalination. It works in certain places, but if we can do more around stormwater capture and recycled water use and conservation, those really are the first efforts we should take.

Assemblymembers Rich Gordon (right), Young Kim (center) and Katcho Achadjian (left) sample recycled water that has been purified for drinking. (Assembly Democratic Caucus)

Assembly members Rich Gordon (right), Young Kim (center) and Katcho Achadjian (left) sample recycled water that has been purified for drinking. (Assembly Democratic Caucus)

Water Deeply: What would be some of the hurdles now that would prevent us from investing in these areas that you highlight? The report mentions problems with funding because of Proposition 218.

Rich Gordon: The challenge we have is that currently in order to raise funds for stormwater capture and clean up, it would require ratepayers who are paying for the wastewater systems to generate additional funds. That provides an opportunity for a citizen protest for a fee increase and local governments around the state have found it very difficult to get a fee increase for stormwater. That’s been a challenge.

Water Deeply: You have a bill, AB 2594, right now that addresses stormwater, what would it do?

Rich Gordon: I am carrying legislation on stormwater that would essentially clarify who has the right to it. If you capture stormwater then you have the right to use it. We think with that clarification it’s a first step to perhaps get people at the local level interested in stormwater as a water source.

Water Deeply: There is an interest now, especially in your area in Silicon Valley, in more decentralized water treatment systems, but some barriers still exist to rapid implementation there. What are some things we could do to speed that along?

Rich Gordon: We can look at what can be done around our building codes and building standards to make it easier for new construction to plan now for gray-water capture and using distributed systems. As technology improves and we have better filtration systems available in smaller capacity then the cost will come down and that will be a factor.

There is another part of it too, of public acceptance and understanding that water that comes out of our washing machines and dishwashers, in particular, could easily be cleaned to a level where they could be reused for those purposes or for toilet flushing or for yard maintenance. Part of that is also developing a level of acceptance that this is something that we need to do.

Water Deeply: How do we get there?

Rich Gordon: I think that we can certainly learn from other places where water has already been a scarce resource and where reuse, recycling and conservation are taking place. And I think in California, if we can take our innovation and use it around conservation and recycling and reuse, we are going to have a lot more water.

It is a requirement that we change the way we look at it. For one example, currently we look at stormwater and we think of it as a waste product, rather than a resource. It’s changing our mindset and developing the systems to capture and use water in a different way. And we can make a difference if we can do that.

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