The cliché about Californians is that when asked where their water comes from, they say “the tap” or “plastic bottles,” said Sierra Magazine editor-in-chief and Occidental College adjunct professor Bob Sipchen. “But if you really think about it, all Californians in particular have a really direct and emotional connection to water.” Sipchen, who was moderating an event co-presented by Occidental College at the Petersen Automotive Museum on the future of water reuse in California, began by asking the panel to share their most tangible memories of water. The panelists—who are involved in water recycling throughout the state in one way or another—mentioned sandbagging on the Mississippi River, the water meter on a grandfather’s farm, a swimming pool fed by a well that then irrigated the lawn, and golf course ponds in Arizona.
But even if people in California understand how important water issues are, they don’t necessarily understand their complexity. “We have so many demands on our water—“and they’re all valid, and they’re all necessary,” said Sarah Woolf, president of water management company Water Wise, who also works in her family’s San Joaquin Valley farm business. We have to look at meeting these demands as one big issue rather than placing them in siloes, with each area of the state deserving different things, she said.
West Basin Municipal Water District public information and conservation manager Ron Wildermuth explained how his district purifies both sewer water and ocean water. First, the water passes through a filter with holes 300 times smaller than a human hair; then they use reverse osmosis technology to put the molecular structure of water through a sheet of plastic.
But as advanced as this technology is, people remain hesitant about the prospect of drinking salty water and wastewater. How, asked Sipchen, do you move beyond this?
It’s as simple as tasting the water, said Wildermuth. “Your mind’s going to say, ‘This tastes like water.’ We can take every contaminated source and make it as good as bottled water.” In the future, he said, the goal is to make recycled water 25 percent of our future supply.
It’s easy to see desalination as the future; the ocean is an unlimited resource. But the process has problems, said Sipchen. It’s extremely energy-intensive and generates a great deal of heat. And there are questions about its impact on marine environments and what to do with the salt that’s left over.
Orange County Water District president Shawn Dewane said that the problems of desalination have to be dealt with site-by-site; Huntington Beach, for example, is dramatically different from Monterey Bay. “We wouldn’t advocate for a one-size-fits-all permitting structure,” he said. The science and technology of desalination “has been proven worldwide and is used worldwide,” he added.
In discussing the work of his water district, Dewane used the phrase “the water we create.” Sipchen asked if this is inaccurate—new water can’t be created since it already exists in the universe.
“It’s new water for us,” said Dewane—it’s used water that would otherwise be dumped into the ocean. Orange County Water District’s goal is to reuse all of the water used by their urban population. “It’s important to understand that no one is drinking toilet water,” he said—but water that’s been cleaned to an “unimaginable level.”
Scott Slater is president and CEO of Cadiz Inc., a company that plans to capture groundwater in eastern San Bernardino County and sell it to Southern California cities. Santa Margarita, an Orange County city, has a contract with Cadiz, said Sipchen. Does producing water from a new source, Sipchen asked Slater and Dewane, send the wrong message to a part of the country that should be limiting its water use?
Dewane said that while new water supplies might encourage growth, we know that regardless, population growth is going to outstrip our ability to conserve water.
“We all want to provide a reliable source of water,” said Slater—and Cadiz’s water is 100 percent reliable. “The question is: new growth or backfill?” he said—and that’s up to local agencies, not his company. Plus, water use is changing here. This year, L.A. took less water from the Owens Valley than any time in history. “It’s not 1950 anymore,” he said.
In the San Joaquin Valley, you used to see huge sprinklers dumping water over the land, said Sipchen—now you see much more efficient drip irrigation. Is there more that can be done there to recycle water?
Farmers are using wastewater to irrigate crops, said Woolf. Her husband’s family farm takes the waste that’s a byproduct of producing tomato paste and uses it to water their tomato crops. There are a number of pilot projects working on cleaning the region’s groundwater, which contains boron and high levels of salinity. Desalination and distilling plants have also come to the San Joaquin Valley. We’re not as far along as Southern California, but we’re working on it, she said.
In the audience question-and-answer session, guests asked the panelists to look to California’s water future.
Will we be able to recycle water in our own homes?
No, said the panelists. These projects work best at a very large scale, said Dewane—who couldn’t imagine it being economically efficient for individuals. (Orange County’s system serves 2.5 million people.) Safety is also a concern, said Slater.
Could desalination or treated sewage supply areas of L.A. that are further inland—from the Wilshire corridor to downtown? Desalination plants are all at sea level, and the best recycled water comes from higher elevations.
Wildermuth said that another alternative for these types of areas is to clean and use contaminated groundwater—which is the major thrust of L.A.’s new water supply.
We have to start thinking about portfolios that are complimentary, said Slater.
There’s not one solution to our water problems—but “several silver bullets,” said Wildermuth.