Los Angeles Eyes Sewage
as a Source of Water
RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD / New York Times 16may2008
LOS ANGELES — Faced with a persistent drought and the threat of tighter water supplies, Los Angeles plans to begin using heavily cleansed sewage to increase drinking water supplies, joining a growing number of cities considering similar measures.
Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who opposed such a plan a decade ago over safety concerns, announced the proposal on Thursday as part of a package of initiatives to put the city, the nation’s second largest, on a stricter water budget. The other plans include increasing fines for watering lawns during restricted times, tapping into and cleaning more groundwater, and encouraging businesses and residents to use more efficient sprinklers and plumbing fixtures.
The move comes as California braces for the possibility of the most severe water shortages in decades.
Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies about a third of Los Angeles’s water, is short of expectations. At the same time, the Western drought has lowered supplies in reservoirs, while legal rulings to protect endangered species will curtail water deliveries from Northern California.
Worsening the problem, Los Angeles is expected to add 500,000 people by 2030, forcing the city to examine new ways to meet demand. One option off the table, Mr. Villaraigosa said, is a repeat of the city’s troubled history, fictionalized in the movie “Chinatown,” of diverting a distant river southward to slake the city’s thirst.
The city, pushed by legal claims, is already paying millions to restore dried-up portions of the river, the Owens.
“There simply are no more holes or straws to pitch,” Mr. Villaraigosa said at a news conference at a water plant.
Many cities and towns across the country, including Los Angeles, already recycle wastewater for industrial uses and landscaping.
But the idea of using recycled wastewater, after intense filtering and chemical treatment, to replenish aquifers and reservoirs has gotten more notice lately because of technological advances that, industry leaders say, can make the water purer than tap water. San Diego and South Florida are also considering or planning to test the idea, and Orange County, Calif., opened a $481 million plant in January, without much community resistance, that is believed to be the world’s largest such facility.
None of the proposals or recycling projects already under way send the treated water directly into taps; most often the water is injected into the ground and gradually filters down into aquifers.
That is what Los Angeles would do, too. But the city abandoned that idea seven years ago in the face of political opposition, and is likely to face some debate about it now.
Fran Reichenbach, a founder of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association, one of the groups that opposed the plan, said she remained unconvinced the water would be safe.
“I appreciate them trying to save us in a time of water shortage, but the fact remains the kind of toxins and chemicals that are created on daily basis cannot be tested for,” Ms. Reichenbach said, disputing industry claims to the contrary. She said the group would push for independent testing and analysis of the treated water.
But Mr. Villaraigosa and H. David Nahai, the general manager of the Department of Water and Power, said they would push forward.
It will cost about $1 billion to retool the water works to treat the sewage, capture more rainfall and make other improvements. The money, city officials said, will come in part from state grants and fees on polluters, though they have not ruled out increases in water bills as well. The City Council must approve some of the changes.
Water Woes From Florida to Spain to Orbit
PATRICK J. LYONS / New York Times 16may2008
You need water more urgently than anything other than breathable air, yet the difficulty of securing a clean, reliable supply seems to be making headlines all over, and not just in desert areas or in the ravaged wake of disasters like the Sichuan earthquake or the Irrawaddy Delta cyclone.
The latest this morning from all-too-soggy South Florida is that the place has not shaken its Ancient Mariner problem after all. (You know: “…nor any drop to drink….”) Temporary restrictions on water use that were lifted in April will have to go back on, and may become permanent, The Miami Herald reports, because Lake Okeechobee, the heart of the region’s supply, started dropping precipitously again as soon as they were relaxed. The water level in the lake is now only six inches above historic lows, The Herald says, and the start of the rainy season is still a couple of weeks away.
Relief is even further off for the drought-seared Catalonia region of Spain, where the city of Barcelona has had to resort to chartering ships to bring in fresh water from abroad; the first one reached the city on Thursday. Barring miraculously atypical weather, the ships will have to keep coming until October, the city says.
The drought afflicting Australia has gone on for seven years now, and the government has moved far past short-term contingencies like tanker ships; its new $13 billion national water plan includes building desalination plants and buying back irrigation-water rights from farmers in the vast drainage area of the Darling and Murray rivers, which, like the Colorado, are so heavily tapped now that they would silt up and peter out before reaching the sea if not for constant dredging. About $1 billion of the money, the government said Wednesday, will go to help cities turn waste water, salt water and storm runoff into potable supplies.
Recycling sewage into drinking water is a concept that has long been more feasible technically than politically. No matter what the scientific tests say about the purity of the results, the very idea just skeeves a lot of people. Out in Los Angeles, though, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa broke with the nose-wrinklers on Thursday, proposing a package of supply and conservation measures that conspicuously included plans for reprocessing sewage effluent into drinking water, Randall Archibold reports in The New York Times today. The mayor opposed the idea a decade ago on safety grounds, but he says the technology has improved since then and the city needs the water too badly to forego it.
Neighboring Orange County has been doing it since November, and San Diego and San Jose are wrestling with it too, as are a host of other cities around the country. NASA said this week that a system for recycling astronauts’ urine in space will be flown up to the International Space Station on the next shuttle mission.
Back on earth, many municipalities are taking it one step less far, recycling sewage into “gray water” that can be used for industrial or irrigation purposes, to spare the limited supplies of the purer stuff for uses that really require it, like drinking, cooking and bathing.
That irrigation (rather than, say, long showers or half-filled dishwashers) is the principal culprit in many an urban and suburban water drama can be seen in how, when supplies start to get tight, the first thing officials do is tell people to cut back on how often they water their lawns. In South Florida, the limit looks headed back to two days a week, The Herald says; in Barcelona, forget it completely.