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Connect the Drops

Water Reuse in California: Overcoming the Barriers to Its Expansion

Californians favor increasing water reuse in the state, but regulatory and financing hurdles still remain, leading experts on the topic to join in discussing the solutions, says Kirsten James from nonprofit sustainability group Ceres.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A system at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission helps recycle water for on-site reuse for irrigation and other needs.Tara Lohan

California has a lot of work to do to expand water recycling. Some experts contend that as much as 2.5 million acre-feet (3 billion cubic meters) of potentially reusable water is yet to be developed. To put that in perspective, the city of Los Angeles supplies approximately 512,000 acre-feet (630 million cubic meters) per year to its customers. The most recent water recycling surveys place the state at only 13 percent municipal reuse. Given that California is one of the nation’s most water-stressed states, the current rate of reuse is nowhere near enough to provide the supplemental resources needed to help reduce the state’s vulnerability to droughts and other water-supply constraints.

Yoram Cohen, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA, drove that point home at a recent forum on statewide water reuse hosted by the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. I was invited to attend and moderate a panel, joining stakeholders from state agencies, legislative offices, nongovernmental organizations and businesses, as well as leading academics. We spent an entire day learning from each other about the barriers to expanding water reuse and then discussing the steps required to expedite its expansion in California.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, opened the session by stating she hoped that “we have achieved greater maturity on this issue” – referring to the science that has been tested, the on-the-ground examples that have been collected and the egos that have been checked – which would help in figuring out how to integrate water reuse wisely.

Ione Water Treatment Plant operator Mike Thompson does a visual inspection of a water holding tank at the facility in Ione, Calif. The Amador Water Agency, which operates the plant, is planning to use funds from the Department of Water Resources to help pay for the installation of another layer of water filtration at the facility that would enable them to reuse water that has been used to clean the treatment plant’s filtering system. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Ione Water Treatment Plant operator Mike Thompson does a visual inspection of a water holding tank at the facility in Ione, Calif. The Amador Water Agency, which operates the plant, is planning to use funds from the Department of Water Resources to help pay for the installation of another layer of water filtration at the facility that would enable them to reuse water that has been used to clean the treatment plant’s filtering system. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

But, as she highlighted, we need to be smart about the best uses for reclaimed water. “It isn’t the smartest use of resources to treat water to pristine levels and then pump it uphill in order to have green lawns looking like we’re in Scotland.”

Thankfully, California’s residents are ready to embrace water recycling. A recent California-based survey by Xylem found that 76 percent of respondents believe recycled water should be used as a long-term solution, regardless of drought.

Echoing public sentiment, the water board has been working to expand municipal water reuse, such as by releasing standards for groundwater recharge with reclaimed water and indirect potable reuse, as well as developing a streamlined permissions system for projects. Just a few weeks ago, the board released a draft report to the legislature on the feasibility of developing uniform water recycling criteria for direct potable reuse. Kara Nelson, professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley, called the effort a game-changer and “a landmark moment” in terms of municipal reuse.

But, as Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs at the Nature Conservancy, noted at the statewide water reuse forum, innovative financing ideas and perhaps some legislative drivers will be needed to really ramp up municipal reuse. The $625 million earmarked for recycled water projects in Proposition 1 is already accounted for. One such driver could be a policy in the vein of Senate Bill 163, proposed in the last legislative session by Sen. Robert Hertzberg. Acknowledging that 1.5 billion gallons (5.7 billion liters) of treated water are lost to the ocean each day in coastal California, the bill called for reuse to be ramped up at these facilities. Though the bill stalled, these types of policy concepts should be pursued.

Clearly, more consistent standards for where and how recycled water can be used are also critical for scaling up on-site water reuse projects, such as those proposed by large companies.

The Public Health Alliance just released a survey that found that 95 percent of Californian environmental health directors believe on-site water reuse is an important issue and feel the need to engage. But, shockingly, 82 percent of those from the same survey were unsure of regulatory standards and their role in overseeing on-site water reuse, citing current regulatory uncertainty as the cause.

No wonder many of our partner companies tell me that their innovative on-site reuse projects have stalled.

Richard Luthy, professor in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, presented a poignant example of the confusion that exists. He shared a chart with standards for gray water used to flush toilets in different states. The risk should be the same regardless of the state or county, right? But the standards vary greatly.

Nevertheless, strides are being made on this front in some localities. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), for example, recognized a growing interest in on-site reuse from the San Francisco business community and sought a path forward for these projects. Paula Kehoe, director of water resources at SFPUC, said that her team found that consistent and appropriate water quality and monitoring criteria were necessary across the many involved agencies.

As a result of their efforts to set consistent criteria and establish a path forward on these projects, 20 decentralized reuse systems are now online in San Francisco. I am hopeful that their imminent draft policy for California, based on the lessons learned from this impressive work, will lead to a solid proposal in the next legislative session.

Removing barriers to water reuse is a big component of Ceres’ business-led California water campaign “Connect the Drops.” Many of Ceres’ company partners in California are keen to move forward on water reuse projects, especially considering the ongoing drought and its impact on their businesses. But they have run into confusion, as well as roadblocks, from regulators at the local level.

Many “Connect the Drops” signatories supported AB 1463 in this past legislative session; the bill laid out a road map for coordinating local and state governments around water reuse standards and monitoring for on-site water reuse projects. Unfortunately, this bill stalled because of unsolved issues between the administration and the bill’s author. It’s going to take a heightened level of coordination and alignment of standards to motivate stakeholders such as the business community to begin seriously implementing water reuse on a grander scale and quench the thirst of farms, businesses and households alike.

However, the future for water reuse is bright. With the population of California expected to almost double by 2055, and with the anticipated effects of climate change in an already water-strained state, water reuse will need to be an integral part of California’s water story. We cannot afford to let this opportunity go literally down the drain.

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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