Urban Wastewater For Sale As Drought Solution
California farmers struggling to irrigate their crops are considering a new strategy: buying urban wastewater.
Anthea Hansen was among the first to jump on this idea. She runs the Del Puerto Water District in the Central Valley, California’s hub for farmers, which has been seeking out new sources of water. Del Puerto lost access to a supply from the federal Central Valley Project because “drought and fish protections reduced the allotment to zero this year and last,” The Modesto Bee reported.
“Growers with permanent crops and who rely largely on surface-water deliveries are basically in survival mode," Hansen said, per the Sierra Sun Times.
“Hansen has been buying water on the open market, but prices have gone through the roof. What her district needs, she says, is a reliable supply — something that’s there, drought or no drought,” Jefferson Public Radio reported.
Hansen decided to work with the wastewater treatment plant in Modesto, CA, which is conveniently located near some of the state’s driest agricultural territories.
The plant is upgrading its equipment to make its water cleaner, adding new ultraviolet disinfection technology. That’s part of a $150 million upgrade “to meet new water quality requirements. It won’t be drinking-water quality, but according to state standards, it will be clean enough to use on crops,” the radio report said.
Will Wong, the engineering division manager for Modesto, oversees engineering and capital planning and projects for all water resources and utilities infrastructure.
When Modesto floated the idea of making treated wastewater available to outside entities, "Del Puerto Water District raised their hand, as quickly as we brought the question up,” Wong said, per the radio report.
Modesto would normally dump up to 14 million gallons of treated wastewater into a river each day, according to the report.
EPA Water Rule Heads To Court
Let the litigation begin.
The ink has barely dried on the federal government’s new Clean Water Act regulation, but stakeholders are already suing over the new standards.
A group of attorneys general from conservative and conservative-leaning states is contesting the recent Clean Water Act update on the grounds that it represents government overreach. The suit claims the new regulation is “an attempt by two agencies of the federal government to usurp the States’ primary responsibility for the management, protection, and care of intrastate waters and lands.”
West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, and Georgia all joined the suit against the new mandate from the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers. The attorneys general from these states are all Republican, “except Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway, who is running for governor,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The attorneys filed a federal lawsuit “that could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court,” The Journal-Constitution reported.
“Filed in federal court in the Southern District of Georgia, the suit challenges a new regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would allow the government to regulate tributaries to rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act,” the report said.
In addition, “18 other states filed three similar suits over the highly contested rule, which the states claim unfairly expands the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ protected by the Clean Water Act, defies previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, oversteps states’ rights to regulate their own waterways and harms businesses and landowners,” Law 360 reported.
The complaints do not end there. Even proponents of environmental regulation give the rule a mixed review. Despite praising many aspects of the new rule, a coalition of environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity is criticizing it on the grounds that it does not go far enough. The groups say the regulation is rife with concessions to industry:
The new rule reaffirms longstanding federal protections for some types of waters, but largely as a result of industry pressure, arbitrarily exempts and removes safeguards for critically important streams, wetlands and other waterways, many of which had been protected since the 1970s. These unprecedented exemptions are contrary to clear scientific evidence demonstrating the importance of these waterways for drinking water, recreation, fisheries and wildlife.
For their part, “the EPA and Corps have said that it makes the scope of their jurisdiction narrower than it was under previous regulations,” according to Law 360.
Some stakeholders have spoken out favorably about the new rule, praising regulators for compromise, including local and county elected officials.
West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said, per the Charleston Gazette-Mail: “The Clean Water Rule doesn’t go as far as we’d like, but it’s better than no rule at all. Despite its shortcomings, it brings necessary regulatory clarity for our headwater streams… in today’s political climate, great compromise is required to get anything done.”
The EPA argues that the rule is necessary to protect waterways and because Supreme Court decisions make it unclear what the agency may regulate under the Clean Water Act.
The drought demands creative solutions, but this plan has faced trouble in the past.
With California’s drought continuing to drain the state’s reservoirs and water supplies, and Governor Jerry Brown demanding a 25-percent decrease in urban water usage, one previously unattractive option is gaining some steam.
Treating sewage water, known as potable reuse, was floated as an option in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Californians ultimately decided they couldn’t bear the idea of what some called a “toilet to tap” system. According to the Los Angeles Times, attitudes may be shifting amid the bleak backdrop of the ongoing and historic drought.
There are two main ways sewage water is treated to become drinkable. One involves a three-step process involving a microfilter, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light, and hydrogen peroxide. Another, which the Times said was defeated in California in the past, involves the use of an “environmental buffer” such as a reservoir or aquifer. The water is placed in the buffer before entering a traditional water-treatment plant.
A plant in Orange County, California, has already been turning used water into potable water. Such treatment plants began contributing to the drinking-water supply in 2008, according to a CNN article from last year. One plant in Namibia has been supplying water for local residents since 1968.
Toilet-to-tap stories and trend pieces have popped up multiple times in the past few years. The consensus is that an effective P.R. campaign and a dire water shortage are two factors that could turn the tide when it comes to public opinion about treating sewage water. In California, a U.C. Davis professor and water treatment expert estimates that treated sewage water could supply 20 percent of the state’s population by 2020.
Related: From Almond Milk to the Putting Green: California Drought Shaming, Diagrammed
“In many ways, it’s cleaner than the water people are already consuming,” U.C. Berkeley professor David Sedlak told a local CBS affiliate in April. “If you’ve ever been to Southern California or the Southwest where the water tastes funny, you’re probably tasting all the dissolved salts in the water and they make it unpalatable. This recycled water has much lower levels of salt. If people could do a side-by-side taste comparison, it tastes better than a lot of the water you get around the country.”
Earlier this year, BuzzFeed created a taste-test video, in which typically over eager millennials try to identify which cup of water they drank was originally sourced from sewage water. Though the (non-scientific) results suggest that the treated water tastes just fine, one of BuzzFeed’s guinea pigs voices a familiar concern: “I don’t care. No, it’s just, it’s poop water, you know? I know what’s been in there. Even if it’s all gone.”