recycled waterSAN DIEGO — California cities are having to survive in serious drought conditions and are looking for new ways to reserve supplies. A fourth year of the worst drought in a century has the state’s reservoirs at an all-time low. In a unanimous vote last November, the San Diego City Council voted in favor of a $2.5 billion plan that will reuse wastewater for drinking.

The plan aims to recycle 30 million gallons of waste water per day by the year 2021, and increase to 83 million gallons per day by 2035, which would provide about a third of the city’s total water supply. The plan is already happening two years sooner than previously anticipated and is expected to produce double the amount of water as it was envisioned late last year. Mayor Kevin Faulconer along with business groups and environmental advocates greatly support the proposed plan.

Similar projects have already been underway for some time in other parts of the state. Serving 2.4 million people in California is the Orange County Water District which manages the largest wastewater recycling program in the state. Just this past summer the District increased their production of recycled water from 70 million to 100 million gallons a day. The OCWD has been reusing wastewater as drinking water since 2008 by first treating it and then sending it through ground basins. Up north in the Bay Area, the Santa Clara Valley Water District is pursuing its own wastewater recycling program. The District decided last September to pursue the construction of facilities that could turn wastewater into drinking water for both Sunnyvale and Santa Clara County as a whole.

Though California is jumping on board mainly out of necessity, it remains a rare thing for sewage or wastewater to be turned into drinkable water. The Waste Reuse Association is a group of agencies that works alongside local efforts to expand water recycling, yet even they can only name 10 projects nationwide that include wastewater recycling. These include areas as far apart as El Paso, TX and Fairfax County, VA.

san diego waterSuch a project as wastewater recycling is an expensive one, nearing the cost of seawater desalination (extracting fresh water from ocean water). Sewage recycling, nicknamed “toilet-to-tap” by its critics, suffers from having an outward appearance that industry insiders call the “yuck factor.”

San Diego has 1.4 million people and imports 85 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River. The residents are slowly warming up to the idea. A survey in 2012 showed that approximately 3 out of 4 residents favored the plan to turn wastewater into drinking water, a marked increase from a 2005 survey showing that only a tepid 1 in 4 residents would support such a plan.

“The drought puts a finer point on why this is so necessary,” said Mayor Faulconer. “Droughts are unfortunately a way of life in California, so we have to be prepared. This helps us to control our own destiny.”

“The hand of the city was forced partly because its main treatment plant fails to meet federal standards for dumping wastewater in the ocean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted a waiver every five years since 1995, with the latest one set to expire in July {of 2015}”.

san diego recycles waste waterSome water utilities in San Diego operate “purple pipes” as part of a recycled water program that provides partially treated wastewater for irrigation and certain industrial uses. The water carried in these purple pipes is not suitable for drinking, but may soon be in order to meet the goals set by the Pure Water program. Water agencies in North County are working on the purple pipe plan while simultaneously starting to explore efforts to make wastewater drinkable. The city plans to expand the purple pipe system to reduce the amount of new pipes needed, making it cheaper for consumers. However, the Pure Water Program remains the top priority.

“Everybody in the county is looking at this now,” said Kimberly Thorner, general manager of Olivenhain Municipal Water District in Encinitas, a member of the North County group. “You kind of have to because what is going on with the drought.”

The goal for both the purple pipe system and the Pure Water system is to make wastewater drinkable and send the treated water to a reservoir or underground, test the water again, then send it to businesses and homes throughout San Diego. Hopefully by the time the project is completed the entire state will be feeling a little less thirsty.