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Climate and Environment

In The Face Of New Water Restrictions, What Else Should Be Done?

An aerial image shows a water treatment plant next to the ocean.
The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant next to Dockweiler State Beach.
(Courtesy Mayor Eric Garcetti's office via Flickr)
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We’re in a drought, it’s bad, and you’ve probably heard some serious water restrictions are on their way. Californians need to conserve more water—but besides restricting water use, what else should we do?

Let’s start at the source: The water we drink, flush, shower and spray our lawns with comes from a lot of places—from snow that melts into reservoirs, underground aquifers and rainstorms. We even recycle water flushed down our toilets. But most of our water is pumped hundreds of miles from Northern California and the Colorado River, over mountains and underground, before it spills from our faucets.

“That water supply seems to be in long term decline and becoming less reliable,” said Daniel McCurry, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC. “So I think whether we like it or not, our hand is forced to some degree to generate new sources of local water.”

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As we face a drier and hotter future with less reliable snow and rain, recycling the water from our showers, dishwashers, sinks and even toilets, for drinking will have to play a bigger role, McCurry said. His research focuses on wastewater recycling.

L.A. plans to recycle 100% of its wastewater by 2035. To do that, the city will upgrade the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in El Segundo. Officials say it’ll produce up to 217 million gallons of drinkable water per day. The project is estimated to cost about $16 billion and construction is slated to begin in the early 2030s.

The L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) estimates the Hyperion recycling program will provide up to 40% of the city's future supplies. Their long-term goal is to get 70% of L.A.'s water from local sources such as recycled water programs, groundwater, stormwater and other conservation efforts, according to a department spokesperson.

Fountain Valley is currently home to the world’s largest wastewater recycling facility. The plant recycles up to 100 million gallons of drinkable water per day—enough to meet the needs of nearly 850,000 residents in north and central Orange County, according to the treatment plant’s website.

People don't like it when you tell them that they can only water their lawns once a week.
— Daniel McCurry, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC.

Since 2016, on average only 2% of L.A.'s water supply came from recycled water. Nearly 90% of the city's water was pumped through pipelines and aqueducts from reservoirs in Northern California and the Colorado River, according to LADWP.

For decades, we’ve recycled water to irrigate parks, golf courses and medians, and the science of purifying contaminated water is well-established, said McCurry. But recycling more wastewater for drinking has faced challenges—largely because the public has a hard time stomaching it. But new water restrictions in response to the current drought may help change that, he said.

“People don't like it when you tell them that they can only water their lawns once a week,” McCurry said. “I hope this serves to inspire people to get over a lingering uneasiness about something like water reuse.”

Desalinating ocean water is likely to also play a large role in ensuring future water supplies, McCurry said, but the process is extremely energy-intensive, expensive and can be harmful to sea life. A controversial desalination project is being considered in Huntington Beach, but its approval is uncertain. Recycling wastewater is cheaper and less energy intensive, McCurry said.

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Improving our ability to capture stormwater will also need to play a bigger role in the future, he said.

“Generating new local supplies, which can be either wastewater reuse or desalination or most likely a combination of the two, is probably our best path forward rather than trying to dig a new aqueduct that goes even further north or something like that,” said McCurry. “I think we've kind of exhausted those options.”

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