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Connect the Drops

Recycled Water Key to California’s Water Security

Recycled water could play a major role in helping to secure a more sustainable water future for California, but the state needs to take some key steps to move implementation along quicker. Polls indicate that the public is ready.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Engineer Elise Chen speaks in front of water purification containers 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 (314 million liters) of wastewater a day for drinking by 2035, about one-third of the city's supply.Gregory Bull, AP

Each day in California an estimated 1.5 billion gallons (5.7 billion liters) of treated water are dumped into the ocean – that’s more than the amount of water needed to fill 2,270 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It’s the water that’s collected from the sinks, bathrooms and laundries in your home and delivered to municipal wastewater treatment facilities. But what if these billions of gallons of wastewater were further purified and put to use to help solve California’s water woes?

Last winter’s rain and snow didn’t come close to solving our water deficit, and we need to think outside the box.

Ultra-purified wastewater is a resource we should be tapping. It’s cleaner than you might think. The City of San Diego conducted a water purification test of highly treated wastewater in 2012 and found the treated water to be even cleaner than imported water. In fact, I drank a glass of this highly purified water on a visit to the West Basin Municipal Water District not too long ago. It tasted like, well, water.

California has slowly but steadily increased its use of recycled water since it first passed the Water Recycling Act of 1991, which set a goal of recycling 1 million acre-feet (1.2 billion cubic meters) of water by 2010, with an interim goal of 700,000 acre-feet by 2000.

State agencies spent the next decade trying to achieve that goal, but fell short, according to Alf Brandt, the senior counsel to California assembly speaker Anthony Rendon, who recently spoke on a Ceres webcast about the generation-long history of recycled water in California.

By the 2005–06 legislative session, Brandt said, it had become clear that 1 million acre-feet by 2010 would not be achieved.

A pipe feeds recycled wastewater to a holding pond to recharge an underground aquifer at the Orange County Water District recharge facility in Anaheim, Calif. (Chris Carlson, AP)

A pipe feeds recycled wastewater to a holding pond to recharge an underground aquifer at the Orange County Water District recharge facility in Anaheim, Calif. (Chris Carlson, AP)

The “next generation” of recycled water targets came in 2009 with the adoption of the State Water Resources Control Board’s recycled water policy, which set a goal to increase annual use of recycled water over 2002 levels by at least 1 million acre-feet by 2020 and at least 2 million by 2030. I worked on the policy during my tenure at nonprofit organization Heal the Bay and it was seen as a huge step in the right direction that opened the door to increasing the use of recycled water from municipal wastewater sources.

But based on the last survey of water recycling conducted in 2009, we’ve only reached about 670,000 acre-feet, according to Karen Larsen, deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Water Quality, who also spoke on the webcast. A new survey is expected early next year.

It seems hard to imagine we’ll meet the 2020 goal, given our incremental progress over the last few decades – although recent drought conditions and new funding opportunities may have prompted a heightened interest in recycled water use.

The legislature is making progress in overcoming some of the institutional obstacles to water recycling, even as the State Water Board tackles some of those obstacles by developing standards for potable water reuse for groundwater recharge, surface water augmentation and even direct potable reuse.

The current drought has spurred closer attention to recycled water as an available resource, and the public seems more willing to accept its use according to a recent poll.

In 2014, voters passed Proposition 1, which set aside $7.5 billion in funds for state water supply infrastructure projects, including $725 million devoted to water recycling. Recycled water currently makes up 7 percent of California’s annual water demand, according to Larsen, but the state can increase that.

Businesses can also play a role in advancing water recycling. The biotechnology company Genentech far surpassed its 2009–14 water-efficiency goal – to reduce the water used per kilogram of product by 10 percent in five years – cutting water use by 87 percent in that time, according to Genentech’s sustainability manager Katie Excoffier. The dramatic increase in efficiency was partly driven by a project to capture reverse-osmosis reject water and to use it in a cooling tower.

Now Genentech has its sights set on increasing recycled water use to help the company meet its 10-year goal of reducing, by 2020, total potable water use by 20 percent. Genentech currently uses recycled water in some of its cooling towers and is working on several fronts to expand the use of recycled water at its 60-building campus in south San Francisco. Purple pipes to carry recycled water are being installed as a part of all construction projects, including the new employee center set to open in the fall of 2016.

“We’re making the business case for water recycling,” Excoffier explained on the webcast. Taking into account intangibles like resiliency, business risk and employees’ passion for water conservation, she said, water recycling becomes a more compelling sell for the company as a whole.

To encourage greater use of recycled water by businesses and municipalities alike, Sen. Robert Hertzberg introduced S.B. 163 into the state Senate. This would amend California’s water code to define discharging treated wastewater into the ocean as water waste and to require treatment facilities to recycle at least 50 percent of water discharges by 2026 and 100 percent by 2036. The potential for savings is enormous.

In the State Assembly, member Mike Gatto has continued his efforts to speed adoption of recycled water with A.B. 1463, which would allow residential and commercial buildings to use wastewater that has been treated on site in irrigation, landscaping, flushing toilets and cleaning.

As we enter another year that will likely prolong our drought, we are encouraged to see these signs of progress, and encourage you to share your stories with us. Ceres’ Connect the Drops campaign spotlights the role that businesses can play in water conservation, reuse and management. Tell us your story at

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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