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Wastewater Recycling Ramping Up in Southern California

Southern California cities rely heavily on water from Northern California and the Colorado River.  But with more frequent droughts and western states being asked to significantly reduce their use of water from Lakes Mead and Powell which are at historically low levels, the need for alternate and more secure sources has become critical.

With this in mind, cities in Southern California are looking at the development of large-scale recycling facilities in order to recycle wastewater for use elsewhere that would otherwise simply get washed out to sea. 

Two of these include the $3.4 billion Joint Water Pollution Control Plant in Carson and Operation Next which is part of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's $16-billion plan to purify wastewater from the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant.

Processing wastewater from as far away as Pomona, the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant will treat 260 gallons of wastewater per day.  Powered exclusively by biogas derived from that process, excess energy that is produced will be sold back into the power grid.  Plant construction is scheduled to begin in 2024 with operational capabilities commencing in 2032.
Scheduled to go on-line in 2035, Operation Next will allow the Hyperion Plant to purify as much as 230 gallons of water a day that is suitable for drinking.  In addition to extensively upgrading the Hyperion Plant, new pumping stations, increased water storage capabilities, pipes and other equipment will be required prior to its completion.  According to Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment CEO, Traci Minamide, "It's such a heavy lift because it's such a large plant … it's an enormous endeavor."

With only 23 percent the state's wastewater currently being recycled, the potential for plants like these is also enormous.  Although the rate is slightly higher at 29 percent for the hydrologic region in Southern California, that still means 1.1 million acre-feet of water annually, or approximately about 981 million gallons each day, could be purified and put to use elsewhere.

The biggest barrier to tapping this potential, according to Heather Cooley, Director of Research at the Pacific Institute, is the way sewage systems are designed. 

"We have built a very highly centralized system, and it's sort of a once through system," she states.  "We often build recycled wastewater treatment facilities at a low point in the watershed … and all the pipes are sort of oriented towards that." 

To overcome this deficiency, instead of purifying wastewater and dumping it into the ocean, new systems need to be developed that can deliver it to other locations where it can be used.
Another problem, according to Cooley, is that the responsibility for developing these capabilities needs to be coordinated among the various groups currently responsible for water resources.  
"In many instances there is a water provider and a wastewater provider and those are separate groups," she says, and "the folks who are getting the recycled wastewater are not folks that are providing water to the community typically."

With pressure on water resources unlikely to ease in the future, the folks in Southern California, at least, seem to be getting the message that one of the best ways to survive in these times of scarcity is by working together in adhering to that old adage, "waste not, want not."

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