2015 CA Recycled Water Survey Shows We Have More Work to Do

California is failing to achieve its goals for recycled water, according to survey results released by the State Water Resources Control Board (“State Board”) last month. The data showed that the production of recycled water only increased by a meager 6% (approximately 40,000 acre feet) between 2009 and 2015. While there are a couple important caveats to the report, the results are nonetheless deeply disappointing and show California has a lot more work to do.  Yet despite the disappointing 2015 results, I'm optimistic that California will significantly increase the production of recycled water and can meet our State's goals, if we work together and prioritize investments in water recycling.

Why does it matter that California did not significantly increase the production of recycled water during this recent six-year period? 

  • First, recycled water provides a drought-resistant, cost-effective water supply for local communities, and there are huge opportunities to increase water recycling in the future. For instance, the 2014 Untapped Potential report by the Pacific Institute and NRDC conservatively estimated that California could increase recycled water production by 1.2 to 1.8 million acre feet per year compared to 2009 levels. That is at least 30 times the increase realized between 2009 and 2015.
  • Second, as the State Board acknowledged in its 2013 Recycled Water Policy, recycled water plays a critical role in sustainable water management in California by allowing more water to remain in the rivers that feed the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, an ecosystem severely suffering from inadequate flows in most years. Even as far back as 1978, the State Board’s Water Rights Decision 1485 identified the need to increase water recycling and water use efficiency before increasing diversions from the already overtapped Bay-Delta estuary.
  • Third, the failure to recycle water is truly wasteful of our precious and limited water resources. This is particularly true for communities along California’s coast, where water is diverted from the Bay-Delta estuary, Colorado River, or other imperiled rivers and streams, used once, treated, and then dumped into the ocean. 

Recognizing these values and the importance of promoting water reuse, California has established several goals for the production and use of recycled water. In 1991, the State Legislature enacted into law a statewide goal to recycle 700,000 acre feet per year by the year 2000 and 1,000,000 acre feet per year by the year 2010 (Water Code § 13577). And in 2009, the State Board’s Recycled Water Policy established statewide goals to recycle 1,525,000 acre feet of water per year by 2020, and 2,525,000 acre feet per year by 2030. 

Yet water and wastewater agencies across California consistently fall short of these goals. The latest survey results show that California is seriously lagging: not until 2015 did the state finally meet the target originally set for the year 2000. That means we are still nearly 300,000 acre feet short of the target for the year 2010, and less than halfway to the target for the year 2020. 

As a result, water districts around the state are more dependent on water from the Bay-Delta. Such over-reliance on this severely depleted source jeopardizes the health of the estuary and is driving native fish and wildlife to the brink of extinction, which, in turn, threatens thousands of fishing jobs.  

There are a couple important caveats to keep in mind when interpreting these results:

  • First, the 2015 survey was done during a major drought during which mandatory water conservation measures were in place that reduced the amount of water available for recycling (while water recycling is drought resistant, it is not entirely drought proof). However, even during the height of the drought in 2015, approximately 1.3 million acre feet of wastewater was dumped directly into the ocean or bays – that is water that could be recycled and beneficially reused through advanced water treatment.
  • Second, in the past few years the State has made major investments in additional water recycling projects, utilizing $600M from the 2014 water bond (Proposition 1) and additional funding from low interest loans. These projects aren’t included in the 2015 survey results because the projects are not yet finished. However, the additional yield anticipated from these projects is still far from enough to reach the State’s goals.  

Even with these caveats, the 2015 recycled water survey results are disappointing. California has taken a voluntary approach to achieving these water recycling goals, and the continued failure to meet these goals is part of the reason why NRDC supported state legislation in 2015-2016 (SB 163 of 2016) that would mandate that local agencies increase water recycling and reduce discharges of treated wastewater to the ocean by 2033. 

Despite the bad news from the 2015 survey, I'm optimistic that we can and will do much better in the coming years. The good news is that achieving these goals is feasible, that recycled water has taken on far greater importance after California’s recent drought, and that the State is continuing to make progress on advancing recycled water. 

For instance, California is making significant progress on the regulatory framework that enables us to reuse water safely and efficiently. The State Board continues work to finalize regulations on indirect potable reuse (the State Board completed regulations on groundwater recharge with recycled water in 2014, and is finalizing regulations on surface water augmentation, where recycled water is stored in a reservoir).  The Legislature is considering important legislation (SB 574, Quirk) that would require the State Board to adopt regulations for direct potable reuse in the coming years, provided that the regulations adequately protect public health. 

And on the ground, local agencies are moving forward with major recycled water projects.  Planned projects in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange County demonstrate how increasing recycled water supplies is feasible, as does the potential expansion of recycled water in Santa Clara. For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“Met”) recently concluded that the regional water recycling project proposed for Los Angeles (in Carson) was economically viable, and would yield 168,000 acre feet per year at an estimated cost of $1,600 per acre foot. Pure Water San Diego, which aims to provide one-third of San Diego’s water supply by 2030, is also moving forward. At the same time, however, Met is considering spending billions of dollars on the environmentally destructive tunnels under the Bay-Delta (California WaterFix), which jeopardizes the ratepayer funding necessary to construct and operate these proposed water recycling facilities. Investments in recycled water make greater economic sense and put California on the path to sustainable water management; indeed, California saw overwhelming interest in the 2014 water bond monies for recycled water projects.

And while more investments in water recycling are necessary for our water security, it is important we not waste this valuable resource. Water recycling and efficiency are complementary, not competing, strategies that will allow us to meet our water sustainability goals more quickly and at lower cost. When thinking about the balance between supply and demand management, California should look to our energy utilities, which include both efficiency targets and a renewable portfolio standard.

If we’re going to improve long-term water supply reliability and be better prepared for the next drought, while restoring the health of the Bay-Delta and sustaining thousands of fishing jobs, we need to make far more progress towards California’s water recycling goals in the next five years than we have in the past five.