Freshwater Wave

Pacific Ocean
Photo: David Orias

Growing up in California, which has always been a place of regular droughts, one of the first things you learn is that water can be a precious commodity. One of the things you don’t always learn is how to use it wisely. There always seems to be either too much, too little, it’s just not in the right place at the right time, but ingrained habits of overuse are hard to put aside.

Water conflicts have been a part of life in California from the earliest days. The water from the northern lakes and reservoirs has been used to irrigate the agriculture industry, grow the cities and industry, provide power and drinking water. A state of over 30 million inhabitants, the 5th largest supplier of food in the world. Reclaimed water, i.e. treated wastewater, has already been in use for irrigation in some areas since the 1930s.

Over the past few decades, the water challenges have only increased as agricultural use pollutes groundwater, lakes run low, and the competition for the resource only becomes more fierce.

The state’s governor has just signed in a number of bills meant to address these problems, and has proposed consolidating all water issues under a single entity, a state Water Resources Board. One of theĀ  keys to ensuring long-term water access, according to Brown, will be the efficient and affordable recycling of wastewater into drinkable water.

Technically, of course, all freshwater on Earth is recycled water. The terms recycled and reclaimed water refer to wastewater that has been treated in a facility to meet a certain standard and directed towards specific uses rather than simply discharged into surface waters like rivers or oceans to let the hydrosphere take care of things.

Even though direct recycling of sewage into potable water without the intermediate step of depositing that water in a lake or reservoir is already being test-run elsewhere, I imagine it will require overcoming both technical and psychological hurdles in the United States.

At the same time, given the long history of water challenges in California and throughout North America, it’s a little surprising it’s taken so long to start having this discussion in earnest.