What California can learn from Cape Town about water policy
By Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg
Two years ago, Cape Town, South Africa, a city of 4 million people, informed its shocked citizens that the city was just a few months away from running out of water due to drought. It was a wake-up call for all of us to become much better stewards of our own water. Luckily, for Cape Towners, innovative water conservation and efficiency measures, smarter data use, expanded water storage, and help from Mother Nature all combined to help them avoid a major water shut off.
California of course continues to have its own foreboding water challenges. As Mark Twain allegedly said, in the West “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” There are even more fights over water in the 21st century now than in Twain’s time, and with the increasing effects of climate change, California’s water shortages will likely get much worse — unless we take bold and ambitious actions now.
Turns out we have compelling evidence in our own backyard that clean treated wastewater is already being used by almost a million of our neighbors to the south. The Orange County Ground Water Replenishment System is the largest operating water purification system in the entire world. In the face of many who said it was just too expensive, this system converts wastewater that otherwise would be dumped into the Pacific Ocean into purified water. The high–quality water meets or exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards.
And here’s some more good news: not only is this purified water safe, it is also very cost-effective. Even without subsidies, which are available for these forward-thinking projects, the cost for the system to produce water is now even less than the cost of imported water that other facilities in the state pay.
This promising approach to water reuse is just one of the helpful tools available to us. The lessons of Cape Town also showed a host of other possibilities for us to continue doing now, or jump-start immediately. These lessons include that unexpected and unprecedented droughts can and likely will continue to occur in the future, and standard approaches to water conservation and water supply diversification are simply not enough.
Two years ago, Assemblywoman Friedman and I jointly authored groundbreaking legislation designed to make conservation a California “Way of Life.” It was a critical first step towards making California’s water management more resilient to climate change. However, benefiting from the lessons of Cape Town and those in our own backyard, we need to be innovative on the water supply diversification front as well. We need to consider:
1) Working collaboratively with agricultural users to determine new ways they can help their urban neighbors by even more effectively using and reusing Ag waters.
2) Incentivizing more intense conservation efforts by all of us through effective advertising and public education campaigns.
3) Even further discouraging the overuse of non-essential uses like lawns and other intensive landscapes.
4) Encouraging our local water agencies to work cooperatively to develop new regional water solutions such as storm water capture and reuse.
5) And most importantly, tasking our water policy leaders, just like the city of Cape Town did, with developing an ambitious new game plan scaled to the enormity of the challenge that better uses and reuses our dwindling water resources.
To spur these efforts, I have been working in the Legislature to require our treatment facilities to develop just such an ambitious new water efficiency blueprint — one that will lead to dramatic reductions in ocean dumping, closing in on 100 percent water savings within 20 years. So far, the wastewater facilities have claimed that many of the state’s aging facilities will need to implement new large-scale water reuse projects that will be too costly. Yet despite them having many other options in their water reuse toolkits to avoid dumping, they have been able to stall this legislative effort. I will nevertheless redouble my efforts for bold action.
And this call for action is not only coming from policymakers like me. It is also being echoed by our courts as well. Recently, the Los Angeles Superior Court prudently ordered the State Water Resources Control Board to engage in this same critically important work in order to harness our precious resource rather than continue to dump it into the ocean.
Water policy is the ultimate test of “balancing interests” among farmers and urban consumers, and Northern and Southern California. The solutions would appear to be a mix of conservation, new technology and new water sources. Getting enough water for a growing California will require a maximum of skill, wisdom and co-operation. It will almost certainly also require a lot of time and patience.
Fortunately, as costly as the changes may be, they can appropriately be paid over a long horizon when the cost of borrowing is at historic lows. And these bold new recycling infrastructure efforts would also be huge economic drivers to aid our currently ailing state economy. Either way, we owe it to all Californians to do all we can in this challenging moment to ensure that the world’s fifth largest economy has a secure and sustainable water future for many years to come.
**This story was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle (Nov. 2020).