Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

Secure California’s future water supply and invest in recycled water

  • Updated
California Drought

In this May 8, 2015 picture, an engineer fills a container with recycled water at the Advanced Water Purification Facility Friday, May 8, 2015, 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. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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 the 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.

Drought conditions have already reached the most severe levels across much of the southwestern United States and officials are worried about the heightened danger of wildfires months before normal.

Jennifer West is the managing director of WateReuse California. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

California has a history of treating public water as a commodity and entrusting it to corporate interests that fail to manage it responsibly, says Alexandra Nagy, the California director for Food & Water Watch

The bill allows city councils and boards of supervisors to override voter-adopted initiative measures in exchange for higher-density housing, setting a troubling standard that could eventually render the initiative power meaningless, says Antonio Diaz, organizational director at People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News