Expanded recycling of sewage water holds the promise of reducing Southern California's reliance on importing drinking water from rivers and snowmelt hundreds of miles away, according to officials from groundwater and sanitation agencies.
It is a promise all the more desirable with the state in its third year of drought, and absent relief, facing the prospect of drastic conservation measures next year.
In recent years, recycling of water has been increasing.
The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County reached a milestone when the annual output of their 10 plants put to "benefitical use" exceeded 100,000 acre feet for the first time this past year, said Grace Robinson Hyde, chief engineer and general manager.
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The district is making plans to increase that by as much as 40 percent.
Statewide, a bill for an $8 billion water bond measure to go on the November ballot would
provide up to half a billion dollars to improve and expand water recycling, along with other steps to make California more drought-proof.
"Moving forward, it has to be a huge part," said Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, chairman of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and principal author of AB 1331.
Rendon spoke Friday after getting a tour and being briefed at the Sanitation Districts' largest treatment facility near San Jose Creek, at the north end of Whittier.
Some of the recycled water is sent to parks and golf courses for landscape irrigation. The majority goes to replenishing the underground aquifers that are the source of wellwater.
In the southern portion of LA County, wellwater accounts for 40 percent of total water consumption, according to the Water Replenishment Disrict (WRD).
Though sewage water can be treated to meet drinking water standards, and four stage treatment does so, California law does not permit so-called "toilet to tap."
Recycled water may not be sent directly into municipal drinking water systems, but first must undergo the natural filtration that occurs when it percolates through the soil into groundwater tables. The process takes two to five years, said Mike Sullivan, a division engineer at the Sanitation Districts.
Afterwards, the water can be tapped via wells and distributed as drinkable water.
"Having the water here, constantly here, even during drought, is an easy source of water to tap," said Sam Pedroza, an environmental planner with the Sanitation Districts.
To replenish LA County's Central and Coastal groundwater basins, WRD has relied for decades on purchases from the Metropolitan Water District, which imports water from the Colorado River
and the State Water Project that delivers water south via the California aqueduct.
Now the WRD envisions the day that, between collected rain runoff and expanded use of
recycled water, replenishment will not require any imported water at all.
The WRD recently released an environmental impact report for its plan to build additional and higher level treatment capacity at the Sanitation Districts' San Jose Creek facility. Groundbreaking is targeted for late 2015, and by early 2017, the central basin could be kept replenished
soley by local sources, General Manager Robb Whitaker said.
The completion of three additional projects could make the west basin also locally sufficient, Whitaker said.
Recycled water is not seen as a panacea for the state's water woes. Rendon's water bond would apportion $2.5 million to storage.
San Joaquin Valley farmers and others have called for building additional reservoir capacity so that during heavy rain seasons more water can be gleaned from the Sacramento River, and saved for drier years.
Southern California will remain dependent on imported water for the forseeable future. But better to reduce the amount of water to be transported hundreds of miles and then lifted over the Tehachapi Mountains, in Rendon's view.
"We have to make sure that we depend on local solutions," he said.