Op Ed

LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS: Stop dumping good water into the ocean

October 2, 2015

By Bob Hertzberg

If ever there was a time to think big about water that time is now.

Remember the energy crisis of the early 2000s? That’s when dwindling energy supplies caused skyrocketing prices and Californians suffered, both in their wallets and quality of life. We got through that crisis with conservation and building a sustainable, renewable, energy system.

Whether El Niño deposits its gift this winter, we have now seen scarcity’s path. Relying on captured water won’t produce nearly as much as we’ve saved this summer through vigilance alone.

Instead, we need to focus on sustainability and smarter choices with the water we have. First: Stop dumping hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water into the ocean every day.

The system that helped California grow in the last century is embodied by Shasta Dam at the head of the Central Valley Project, which moves water from the north where it is to the south where it isn’t. A hardhat helping build the dam in the 1940s said: “I’m moving the rain, mister,” as if he were a god mastering the weather in Greek myth.

But there’s another big idea, and Californians are the masters: conservation and sustainability.

Since 1970, Los Angeles has managed to cut total water use while growing by one million residents. Californians adopting conservation this past June and July saved 414,000 acre-feet of water. That’s as much water as San Francisco uses in five years.

We’ll also need new supplies, like recycled water. Far too much treated water slips through our parched hands.

A model for success is here in the Southland. Since 2008, Orange County has used a groundwater replenishment system that takes highly treated wastewater that would have previously been discharged into the ocean and purifies it using a three-step process of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide.

The water from this purification system exceeds government water standards and produces up to 70 million gallons of water each day. Even the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest water wholesaler in the region that normally relies on imported water, for the first time is considering building a water recycling plant modeled after Orange County’s.

Compare that to our current system of treating the water that flows from our homes and businesses. We’ve installed the infrastructure, the drains, the basins, the pipes and filtration tanks, to hold and clean this water we’ve only used once. This treated water meets federal guidelines and its quality nearly makes it drinkable. In coastal areas, that treated water is dumped in the ocean.

A more sustainable practice would be using that water to replenish depleted groundwater aquifers, and irrigate parks and golf courses.

This treated water has ironically for many years been called “wastewater” by government agencies. Today, we see the real water “waste” is short sighted. We’ve had four droughts in the past quarter-century. Drought is the story of California. Yet statewide, we pour over 1.6 billion gallons — equivalent to 18 Rose Bowls — into the Pacific every 24 hours.

Come January, one of my priorities will be a declaration that discharging treated water into the ocean is a waste we can no longer afford. The goal: Reuse half our treated water by 2026 and all of its flow by 2036.

The bottom line: We need to think about the danger of water shortages in drought times the same way we feared rolling blackouts during the energy crisis. The solution is conservation and sustainability. By stringing together enough modest measures, water recycling among them, we can tilt the balance in our favor. Given recent conservation successes, it won’t take much to avert a true crisis.

We’re still moving the rain. We just need to use it again and again — instead of throwing it away in the ocean.

This op-ed was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on Oct. 2, 2015.

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