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Wasting wastewater: new report identifies water recycling opportunities

Los Angeles' Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant. According to the plant, "Most of the wastewater that leaves secondary treatment is pumped from the plant into Santa Monica Bay through a five-mile long pipe at a depth of 190 feet."

In California, it is a persistent challenge making water supply and water demand match up. A report being released Wednesday outlines how much water California’s coastal wastewater treatment plants dump into the ocean, and how much of that could be saved through better water management.

James Hawkins is a water policy researcher at the Santa Barbara-based Heal the Ocean. The nonprofit is focused on reducing ocean pollution, and undertook a multi-year study of the state’s recycling potential. They did so by compiling an inventory of wastewater discharges into coastal waters, wastewater coming from urban cities along the coast.

“We found 417 billion gallons were discharged at 57 locations into the Pacific Ocean and coastal bays in California in 2015,” Hawkins said. “Any indoor water use and every time you use your sink, every time you flush the toilet—that's going to all those coastal wastewater treatment plants and being treated up to secondary standards, then disposed in the ocean.”

Hawkins said he and his team aren’t really worried about the wastewater’s impact on coastal waters, as it’s treated before it heads into the Pacific. They’re more worried that it’s a missed opportunity.

“Our study strives to show the potential to harness this wasted wastewater, promoting local water sustainability and reducing ocean pollution in the process,” said Andrew Juiliano, a Heal the Ocean policy analyst. “Santa Barbara’s wastewater treatment plant recently upgraded its recycled water capabilities to 4.3 million gallons-per-day, Montecito is planning a new recycled water project, and the state plans to implement policy for direct potable reuse in the next five years.”

“The interesting thing about coastal wastewater discharges is that, essentially, there's no benefit to it for the state,” Hawkins said.

For coastal wastewater treatment plants, releasing wastewater into the ocean is just convenient, but the alternative could have a giant impact.

“If we were to recycle 85 percent of that, which I should say would be incredibly aggressive but potentially feasible, it would be enough water for nearly eight million Californians,” Hawkins said.

That’s especially important as California’s drought conditions continue.

“I just checked the numbers; as of last week, 48 percent of California is experiencing drought conditions,” Hawkins said Tuesday. “Twenty-three percent of that is severe drought conditions.”

Many wastewater treatment plants already recycle some wastewater. For example, in Orange County, some water treatment plants clean recycled water enough to inject it back into the groundwater supply. But there’s much more to be done, according to the report.

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