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California Is Poised for Big Gains in Recycled Water Use

A state survey shows that California made modest gains in recycled water use during the drought, but that number is likely to grow, thanks to a number of factors, say water experts Jennifer West and Bobbi Larson.

Written by Bobbi Larson, Jennifer West Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
California drought37
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.AP/Chris Carlson

The state’s recently released survey about California’s use of recycled water was disappointing for recycled water use advocates, but it doesn’t tell the full story.

The survey, by the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources, found that recycled water use has increased by 44,500 acre-feet since 2009. California used 713,653 acre-feet of recycled water in 2015.

While we had hoped for greater gains, progress and opportunities abound. Recycled water use is poised to provide over a million acre-feet of water to augment local drinking water supplies in addition to continuing to reduce potable water use for irrigation and industrial applications.

Several factors that also contributed to the survey results cannot be overlooked.

First, the survey measured recycled water use from 2009-2015 when California was in the grip of an epic drought. During this time, there was a 25 percent average reduction in water use across the state to meet state requirements and mandates. These cutbacks occurred in both potable and recycled water use. Furthermore, water use efficiency – while desirable as a way of life in California, especially during drought – has reduced the amount of wastewater available – thus reducing the amount of recycled water that can be produced.

Second, like the rest of the country, California experienced an extraordinary economic downturn. Economic challenges, along with decreased revenues due to the drought, forced many agencies to place some water projects on hold. Recycled water expansion projects were among the first.

Third, each community has its own set of variables to consider when responding to recycled water use. The findings show that the highest water recycling uses were for outdoor landscape irrigation projects. While these projects are just as important to a community as larger volume potable reuse projects, they don’t result in large acre-feet increases in use of recycled water.

Let’s look beyond the modest 44,500 acre-feet increase to see the exciting news on the horizon.

Recycled water used to recharge groundwater supplies for drinking water increased nearly 30 percent. This is water used day in and day out, and not just seasonally for irrigation. And, along with this promising increase, there are dozens of new, innovative projects underway and other opportunities to increase water reuse.

Currently, there are 17 groundwater recharge projects planned that could result in 225,000 acre-feet of water reuse per year. California also has four reservoir augmentation projects underway that could yield another 100,000 acre-feet of recycled water per year.

Even more opportunities can be realized as the Water Board develops regulations to use purified water in aqueducts and canals and approves permits for potable reuse. According to the Water Environment and Reuse Foundation, potable reuse has the potential to provide an additional 1.1 million acre-feet of drinking water supplies per year once approved and permitted. These projects combined with the existing irrigation and industrial use projects will put California’s annual recycled water use well over the state’s statutory goal of 1.5 million acre-feet.

Planned and potential water reuse projects are all critical to California’s water portfolio and long-term water supply solution. As agencies embark on innovative water reuse projects, they need regulatory certainty, funding and public support to realize their full potential. With the confluence of these supporting factors, the numbers for statewide water recycling use will look much more positive by the time of the next statewide survey.

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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