Mayor Villaraigosa and the Department of Water and Power are (metaphorically) on opposite sides of a sea of troubled water. In 2008, the mayor announced conservation policies that included tentative steps to expand the use of reclaimed waste water. Recently, the DWP announced plans for a 16 percent rate increase, mostly because of higher Metropolitan Water District costs (which are expected to nearly double by 2020). But the DWP stepped back from funding new conservation strategies in the mayor's 2008 proposal and deferred the issue of reclaimed water to the city council.
Instead of paying a lot more for MWD's water and flushing all of it away, Los Angeles could do more with the water it already has, argues Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay.
Gold's commentary in the Los Angeles Times points out that Angeleños have done a lot to cut their use of water since 1991. Consumption is close to a 20-year low, despite continuing population increases. But conservation by consumers at the tap should be accompanied by water saving elsewhere, including waste water reuse.
Rather than act now, the DWP has put off decision making until at least 2030.
While Los Angeles hangs back from processing waste water to recharge underground aquifers, cities in southeast Los Angeles County have had almost 50 years of successful experience in reusing their waste water. About 37 million gallons a day of reclaimed water is let into spreading grounds along the San Gabriel River or pumped directly into aquifers. Cities in Orange County are recharging their badly depleted aquifers from a new plant in Fountain Valley that purifies about 80 million gallons of waste water a day.
Los Angeles and Orange counties are the largest processors and users of reclaimed waste water in the nation. As much as 17 percent of Orange County's drinking water will eventually come from highly purified reclaimed water. The city of Los Angeles reuses only one percent of its waste water, and it's used mainly for landscape and golf course irrigation.
Fear is the solvent that dissolves better plans for the reuse of processed wastewater in Los Angeles, particularly for groundwater recharge. There are more than 50 years of good (but not perfect) science in water reclamation technology. The action of chemical, pharmaceutical, and biological contaminants in drinking water is well (but not perfectly) understood. The skills to measure constituents in water well below one part in a billion are advancing (but not perfect). These contaminants leave behind risks that are small (but not reduced to a perfect zero). Because even reverse osmosis and other advanced treatment protocols cannot be proved perfectly safe, fear determines that reclaimed water must be unsafe.
"Why the hell do we have to drink our own sewage?" asked Muriel Watson (in a 2008 New York Times Magazine story), who had founded the Revolting Grandmas to fight reclaimed water use. "It's not the sun and the sky and a roaring river crashing into rocks," she complained of waste water treatment. "It's just equipment."
Fears like her's didn't win in Orange County when, in 2006-2007, plans for water reclamation and groundwater recharge were announced. A smart campaign of public information and community involvement overcame the so-called "yuck factor." But not in Los Angeles, where the DWP's attempts to launch waste water reuse in 2000 failed, largely because the DWP was deaf to consumer anxieties. The only lesson the DWP learned then was to duck behind the city council whenever waste water reuse is mentioned.
Los Angeles will reuse waste water one day. It's inevitable as water costs rise and supplies grew critical. But until then, Mayor Villaraigosa's goal of sustainable water in Los Angeles is held captive by fear - the corporate fears of the DWP, the political fears of the city council, and the irrational fears of some Angeleños.
A sea of reusable water is waiting, untapped except for squeamishness. As William Mulholland is supposed to have said of Owens Valley water when it first poured into the San Fernando Valley, "There it is. Take it."
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
The image on this page is adapted from a public domain source.