California and parts of the West are in the grips of record-shattering drought. Reservoirs have dried up; tens of thousands of acres of farm land are fallow; and a civil war has broken out between nut growers and other farmers over water rights. The governor has mandated a twenty five percent reduction of water use in cities although one would not know it watching sprinklers running day and night at country clubs and mansions.
The bad news is that this is not an abnormality. It is the new normal. Even if it rains next year, the reservoirs are so depleted that they are not likely to re-fill before the next drought. Meanwhile, so much water has been pumped from the aquifers that the ground is actually sinking. No one knows how much water remains under ground, but if the ground is sinking, that can’t be a good sign.
California has experienced droughts before but this time the drought is more severe and the number of thirsty people is greater. Furthermore, the amount of water required to irrigate nut farms has grown exponentially since the last major drought. All the glitter in Hollywood can’t hide this catastrophe.
Although many Californians are still in denial, others are coming to grips with reality. They realize that old solutions will no longer work. It is time for dramatic change. Short of closing the borders and moving millions of residents out, water professionals and environmentalists are looking at other solutions including reuse of sewage water. The notion was rejected in Los Angeles before, but it is now becoming more appealing.
Every year, California dumps hundreds of billions of sewage water into the Pacific Ocean. Tim Quinn, the Executive Director of California Water Agencies, said this waste water is probably the single biggest source of water supply for California over the next century.
The technology exists to clean sewage water sufficiently to allow it to be used, not only for irrigation and showers, but drinking water. In fact, that is already being done, without problems, in other places including San Diego County and cities in Texas including Big Springs and Wichita Falls. The only barrier in California is the so-called “Yuk Factor,” which is all perception with no reality.
Critics have charged that the technology does not remove traces of antibiotics and hormones from the water. The reality is Californians are drinking water every day that contains those trace amounts. Over 200 municipalities dump sewage water into the Colorado River basin and that water goes into California’s reservoirs to be filtered for human consumption. Drainage from dairy and poultry farms full of antibiotics and hormones pours into the California aqueduct every year, and humans drink it.
In an economic analysis last year George Tchobanoglous, a water treatment expert and professor emeritus at UC Davis, estimated that by 2020, potable reuse could yield up to 1.1 million acre-feet of water annually enough to supply 8 million Californians, or one-fifth of the state’s projected population with water.
In potable reuse system, effluent from a wastewater treatment plant is sent to an advanced treatment facility, where it undergoes a three-step purification process. First, the water is passed through a microfilter that blocks particles, protozoans or bacteria that are larger than 1/300th the thickness of a human hair.
Next, it undergoes even finer filtration in the form of reverse osmosis, in which water is forced through a membrane that blocks fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, viruses and salts. In the third step, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide are used to break down any pathogens or organic compounds that escaped the first two steps. The result is a purified substance that is cleaner than most bottled waters, according to WateReuse California, a group that advocates for water reuse and desalination.
Nevertheless, even if the drought forces Californian’s to change their perceptions, bureaucratic roadblocks would mean years of fighting before work could begin on these systems.
Allison Chan, an environmental engineer studied the issue of why some potable reuse projects succeeded while others failed. She found that an active public outreach campaign, along with a crucial need for water, were key factors in projects that won approval. However, although education and outreach generally increased support for potable reuse programs, it also had the effect of hardening perceptions. In other words, supporters became even more supportive, while opponents became even more opposed.
While the debate goes on, California is running out of water. It seems like it is time for drastic action. Las Vegas might look at this as well.
If you like this article, please share it. Find me on Facebook or Twitter.