Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The State Water Board today received a comprehensive water recycling policy for California that the state desperately needs to heed. After five months of intense negotiations, a coalition of water supply agencies, water recyclers, sewage treatment agencies and environmental groups, including Heal the Bay, wrote the policy in response to a draft effort completed by the water board that was universally opposed. 

The fate of the policy lies in the hands of the Water Board, but it is critical for the Schwarzenegger administration, including Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources, and Secretary Linda Adams from Cal-EPA, to use the policy as a springboard for a more comprehensive and integrated water policy for all of California.

The policy makes a strong statement that California has entered a time of increasing water scarcity due to decreasing supplies because of climate change impacts and numerous water rights decisions, and increased demand due to continued population growth. In other words, no more fear mongering over drought declarations — just a clear acknowledgement that we are living beyond our water means. In order to move toward sustainable water management, the policy contains clear numeric goals for recycled water use (2 million acre feet by 2030), stormwater use (1 million acre feet by 2030) and conservation (20% reduction in urban and industrial use by 2020).

A negotiated policy of this complexity required a great deal of give and take.  From the environmental perspective, the highlights are:

  • The development of salt and nutrient management plans (focusing on salts and nitrogen-based nutrients, but including local contaminants of concern) that include monitoring and stormwater recharge components for every groundwater basin in California by 2016 at the latest. Water suppliers, treatment plants and recyclers will pay for plan development
  • A mandate for the use of recycled water that applies to water suppliers, recyclers and wastewater treatment plants. Although the mandate numbers are low (only 200K acre feet by 2020), the policy makes it clear that the water suppliers have to use recycled water when it is available at reasonable cost
  • A requirement to analyze recycled water for emerging contaminants (pharmaceuticals, new organic toxins, etc.) on at least an annual basis
  • The creation of an expert panel to work with the State Water Board to develop technical guidance on emerging contaminants by 2010

In exchange, the water recyclers get:

  • A streamlined process on the use of recycled water for irrigation
  • A streamlined process to determine if water recycling projects are causing groundwater degradation (anti-degradation analysis procedure)
  • A commitment by all parties involved that we will push for an enormous increase in funding for water recycling projects
  • A monitoring philosophy that doesn’t require the drilling of a lot of new wells, except in high risk areas of the basis that are adjacent to receiving waters or high groundwater

All parties gave up a little to create this sorely needed policy for California. However, we couldn’t agree on everything. We couldn’t reach consensus on incidental runoff.  The environmental community would have liked to have seen the policy state that unpermitted discharges of recycled water are prohibited, but the water community didn’t want the prohibition language.

Despite the one disagreement, the policy negotiation resulted in the creation of a far-reaching water recycling policy that could act as a catalyst for increased water recycling, stormwater use and movement towards an enduring water management plan for California.  Now the ball is in the state’s court.  

I hope that California leaders will seize the opportunity and move more aggressively on water conservation, including mandatory water metering statewide, water use reduction requirements for agriculture, plumbing code modifications and native planting requirements. We also need water rights reform, low impact development, wellhead treatment at contaminated aquifers, and management changes that better protect water quality, anadramous fish, and coastal and riparian ecosystems. There is no more critical issue for the state than moving quickly to a sustainable water future.

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