It’s amazing what three years of drought and the need to reduce carbon emissions can do for the popularity of recycled water.

As California hurtles into the third year of what could be its worst drought ever, the purveyors of recycled water are feeling the love from the state’s solons in Sacramento who are scrambling to meet the state’s growing thirst for water and reduce its greenhouse gases.

There are currently no less than 50 pieces of legislation under consideration by the Legislature that relate in some way to recycled water, ranging from the big-ticket water bonds, an amendment to the plumbing code making it easier to dual-plumb buildings and financing for water and energy efficiency improvements for schools and homeowners.

At the kickoff of a recent conference of the WateReuse Association in San Francisco, the city’s mayor and likely gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom, two Assembly members, and a high-ranking official from the Bureau of Reclamation, all addressed the critical water issues in California.

Newsom, who simultaneously touted his city’s green accomplishments and admitted they could do more to reuse water, told the 400 in attendance that “this is unbelievably critical the work that you are doing.”

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) ticked off the “very serious and vexing water challenges” facing the Assembly this session. He noted the environmental crisis facing the Delta; the challenges of the Endangered Species Act; the multi-year drought; and the “extinction vortex” of the salmon populations, which he said, “will make the Delta smelt look like a walk in the park.”

Huffman said water reuse and recycling “may not be the silver bullet for all these water problems, but it should be one of the more obvious solutions we should be considering.”

Donald Glaser, the Regional Director of the Mid-Pacific Region of the Bureau of Reclamation, said no one believes the state can build enough new storage facilities to meet its water demands.

“That is why it is critical that every drop of water be used efficiently … and reuse is certainly part of that.”

He said a shift in thinking about water reuse represents a watershed moment in state water policy.

“Not often in your career do you get to see a paradigm shift,” he said. “And you are it.”

Why the sudden attention being lavished on a decidedly unglamorous industry that has toiled in relative obscurity within the labyrinthine world of California water politics?

“We’re in the third year of a drought and we’re being loved to death,” said Mary Grace Pawson, who chairs the Legislative Committee for the WateReuse Association’s California Section.

In addition to the drought, Pawson said, “There is an increasing awareness of the value of recycled water, and a nexus between recycled water and green building standards. People have figured out there is a connection. Green building people really do understand that this is a resource they should be using.”

The 50 bills introduced in the current session of the Legislature that contain some element of water reuse or recycling fall into three general categories: a handful are the big-ticket water bonds for construction of water projects and conservation; another group relate to green building codes and reducing carbon emissions; and others specifically target recycled water such as allowances for dual plumbing to utilize recycled water in buildings.

It might have taken a drought to bring water recycling to the forefront of the water debate, but reuse advocates have been touting the benefits of recycled water for years.  

“The biggest overall benefit of recycled water is it is a reliable supply, it is drought proof,” said Pawson, who is a project manager with the Winzler & Kelly engineering firm. “It is typically locally controlled, so you’re not depending on the ruling of a judge or on DWR to turn on the pumps. And it can be part of your AB32 compliance strategy and help you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions.”

The national WateReuse Association estimates there are 332 agencies, counties and cities recycling water in California. According the Department of Water Resources, about 500,000 acre-feet per year is reused, three times what was recycled in 1970. The state’s Recycled Water Task Force in 2003 estimated that a potential of about 1.4 million to 1.7 million acre-feet of additional water supply annually could be realized though water recycling by the year 2030.

DWR estimates that two-thirds of all recycled municipal wastewater in California is used for irrigation, including 46 percent for agriculture and 21 percent for landscaping. In addition to irrigation, other uses include industrial uses, groundwater recharge and indirect potable water source.

The argument in favor of water reuse to reduce greenhouse gases is perhaps strongest in Southern California, where much of the water supply is imported from either Northern California or the Colorado River.  

Pawson said there is new data that shows “how much you can reduce your greenhouse gases by reducing your water energy costs, particularly in Southern California. It takes a lot of energy to get that water over the Tehachapis. You really do have big pumps running to deliver the water. It’s an enormous difference (in energy costs) if you are recycling water.”

Recycling water also insures a reliable source of locally controlled water, which is a major concern for cities and counties throughout the state.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Donald Glaser said, “We’re on an unsustainable course as it relates to water in the state, at least as it relates to the Central Valley Project (operated by the federal government). No one believes we’re going to build enough surface storage to meet all the needs … and reuse is a critical part” of the solution.

“Every acre foot of reuse is an another acre foot that can go to other beneficial uses,” he said. “There is no new water.”

Glaser said there is the potential for 1 million acre-feet per year of water to be recycled south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That amount of water would be very welcome to the farmers in the Central Valley who have seen their water deliveries cut drastically this year.

Assemblymember Michael Duvall, (R-Yorba Linda) who worked on the Orange County groundwater replenishment project that recycles 70 million gallons per day of municipal wastewater, said the state needs to do more to support recycling projects and conserve the state’s most valuable resource.

“The real gold in California is water,” he told members of the WateReuse Association.

In a room full of engineers, scientists, water managers and public administrators committed to water reuse, he was preaching to the choir.

Barry Dugan has written extensively on water issues throughout the state of California at the local and statewide level in nearly 25 years of reporting on local government. Read more from Barry Dugan on


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