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A Race to the Top: Who Will Be the Pioneer of Direct Potable Reuse?

A new bill in California would provide regulatory certainty to communities so they could invest in direct potable reuse projects to increase drinking water supply, writes Sean Bothwell of California Coastkeeper Alliance.

Written by Sean Bothwell Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
The Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center could be poised to become the first facility to do direct potable reuse in California, but the state has yet to set the regulatory criteria.Tara Lohan

The California drought has created a race to the top. Amid all the social, economic and environmental havoc, there is a quiet competition underway to see who will emerge as the leader in water innovation. Which community will be drought-resilient? Who will provide their community with reliable, inexpensive water, even during a crisis?

There is no silver bullet to becoming drought-resilient, but direct potable reuse provides communities with considerable security in an uncertain hydrologic future.

Direct potable reuse is the purification of wastewater to such a high quality that it is safe to distribute directly into a drinking water system. In 2014, more than 1.2 billion gallons of treated wastewater per day were discharged into California’s coastal waters and estuaries. Direct potable reuse would turn that waste into a reliable water resource that is cheaper and less energy-intensive than other supply options.

California communities want the opportunity to become the first to achieve direct potable reuse. Direct potable reuse is largely drought-proof, cheaper than opting for ocean desalination, and would require less infrastructure than non-potable reuse.

Orange County, the historic pioneer in potable reuse, wants to continue its leadership legacy. San Diego is already planning a project that would distribute potable reuse into reservoirs, but would prefer to distribute it directly into the drinking water system because it would be less expensive due to less pumping. Los Angeles has the greatest potential for turning treated discharges into direct potable reuse. And with the goal of overtaking Orange County, Santa Clara has already begun planning for direct potable reuse.

Regardless of the local desire for this pathway to water security, communities are hesitant to move forward on direct potable reuse projects because California does not have permitting regulations in place. Without a regulatory framework, communities are not afforded the certainty that a proposed project is viable, and are thus forced to consider more expensive and environmentally harmful water supply options such as ocean desalination.

In 2010, California enacted legislation requiring the state to develop the nation’s first regulations to allow recycled water to replenish groundwater supplies and augment reservoirs. This legislation also required California to determine whether it was feasible to adopt regulations for direct potable reuse that were protective of public health. Late last year, the state concluded that it was indeed feasible to adopt direct potable reuse regulations that ensured public safety.

However, despite efforts by California Coastkeeper Alliance and WateReuse California, the state stopped short of committing to a target date for adopting regulations that would provide the regulatory certainty communities must rely upon in planning.

This year, California Coastkeeper Alliance and WateReuse California introduced Assembly Bill 574 to provide communities with that regulatory certainty. Assembly Bill 574 (Quirk-Hayward) will create a four-year plan to make California the first state in the nation with comprehensive, statewide direct potable reuse regulations. If enacted, communities will be empowered to consider direct potable reuse as part of their water supply portfolio. AB 574 will lead to a race to the top to determine which California community will be the first pioneer to achieve direct potable reuse.

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

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