By James Poulos.
For the first time, California regulators have warmed to the idea of directly serving up treated sewer water to residents, underscoring the difficulty officials have had in uniting around alternative means of setting the state’s water policy on stable foundations.
“A new report released by the State Water Resources Control Board last week outlines what needs to happen before drinking treated wastewater, also known as ‘direct potable reuse,’ becomes a reality,” Southern California Public Radio reported. In sum, a battery of new regulations, focused on ensuring that filtration processes meet a number of rigorous criteria, would be required — a goal the board opted not to suggest a timeline for.
“But in Southern California, many of us already are drinking treated wastewater — at least, indirectly,” the station added. “Places like Orange County, the Chino Basin and coastal Los Angeles have been blending treated wastewater with groundwater for years. But the difference is, the treated sewer water has been sitting in a reservoir or underground aquifer before it gets delivered to our tap. That means the water is diluted, and it also gives water managers time to wait for lab results from the wastewater treatment plant, and make last minute changes if something goes awry.”
Fish or foul
At the same time as it has warmed up to sewer water, however, the board has unsettled the water debate still further by pushing for more aquatic protections for fish. According to its new plans, “the amount of water in the San Joaquin River and its major tributaries that would remain available for fish during certain times of the year would more than double to a suggested starting point of 40 percent of the river water from nearly 20 percent,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
“Right now, around 80 percent of the river water is diverted for use by farms and cities,” the paper noted. “The diversions have helped sustain some communities through the state’s five-year drought, but have left fish vulnerable. Officials of the regulatory agency said the increases were needed to help restore endangered salmon and steelhead, populations of which have plummeted. Some tributaries fall to as low as a trickle in places.”
The eyebrow-raising news deepened rifts with farmers and others desperate to return as close to pre-drought levels of use as possible. Merced County supervisor Deidre Kelsey, describing herself as “kind of aghast,” told BuzzFeed News the plan was “so preposterous” that it “can’t work. Unless everybody picks and moves out of the valley.”
The fish issue has not created the only impasse in California’s long-term plans for protecting and managing its water resources. In a disappointment for supporters of an ambitious plan to send Delta water underground toward Southern California consumers, a financially discouraging report requested by Sacramento recently came to light. “Giant tunnels that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build to haul water across California are economically feasible only if the federal government bears a third of the nearly $16 billion cost because local water districts may not benefit as expected,” the Associated Press reported, citing the unreleased analysis, which was commissioned last year.
“Further, no local water districts have agreed to pay their slated share for the tunnels because of uncertainty over regulatory approval and whether it would be worth the expense for them. Spending on the project has become the subject of an ongoing state audit and federal financial review. With districts balking, the state for the first time is dipping into public funds — fees paid by users of existing state water projects — to get the project through the planning phase, state spokeswoman Nancy Vogel told The Associated Press last month.”