California is flush with cash and staring down a thirsty future. According to the EPA Needs Survey and Assessment, our state needs $50 billion in infrastructure improvements to ensure safe drinking water for everyone. Our unprecedented state budget surplus and drought-induced water use restrictions make it clear: Now is our chance to modernize our water systems, and we must act with urgency.
Gov. Newsom acknowledged the need to act quickly to secure our state’s water supplies in his recent announcement of a plan for how to address the state’s drier future.
But while many of the strategies he laid out would go a long way toward improving our state’s water resilience, the governor needs to put his money where his mouth is. Missing from his vision for California’s water future was a specific plan for how to pay for these improvements.
Lawmakers must ensure more funds are earmarked to update our water and wastewater infrastructure to prepare for what’s to come.
California’s final 2022-23 budget recognizes both the need and the opportunity of this moment, to a certain extent. It includes nearly $54 billion to broadly address the risks and impacts of climate change, and tucks about $2.8 billion for spending related to drought and water supply resilience within that pot of money.
Allocated funds include relatively small pots of money for wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and groundwater cleanup projects, along with funding for priorities like low-income water rate assistance.
That’s a nice step in the right direction, but lawmakers must ensure even more funds are earmarked to update our water and wastewater infrastructure to prepare for what’s to come, as Newsom argued.
Specifically, an additional allocation of $500 million for large-scale wastewater recycling projects in Southern California would move our entire state an important step closer to regional water self-sufficiency.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack and Colorado River are no longer reliable water sources in dry summer months. Even with dramatically increased water efficiency, there will not be enough water to go around unless we stabilize and enhance local water supplies in every part of California.
State funding is essential for securing regional water independence and equitable water access.
The tools we need for a sustainable water future already exist. The Pacific Institute recently released a report that shows Southern California could save or reuse up to 4 million acre-feet of water a year through enhanced conservation, wastewater recycling and stormwater capture – enough for about 12 million households.
The Orange County Water District has recycled wastewater since 2008 to supplement existing groundwater, but this technology has not been widely adopted.
Large wastewater treatment plants in L.A. County discharge almost 250 billion gallons of water annually – nearly half the county’s current need – into the Pacific Ocean. LA Mayor Garcetti pledged to recycle 100% of the city’s wastewater by 2035, and the Metropolitan Water District’s Pure Water Southern California project is slowly moving forward. These efforts could collectively purify up to 320 million gallons of drinking water daily. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Existing wastewater recycling plants like the Ed C. Little facility in El Segundo and the aforementioned Orange County plant are planning upgrades and expansions, while San Diego and Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in Calabasas are launching their own pure water projects.
With the right approach, improving critical infrastructure can also provide lifelong, middle-class careers.
But fully implementing them would cost $10 billion or more. State funding is urgently needed to accelerate these efforts.
State funding is essential for securing regional water independence and equitable water access. And prioritizing investments in proven technologies like wastewater recycling is a smart way to accelerate this process.
Investments in water infrastructure can also create thousands of good jobs when projects utilize high road labor standards.
Project Labor Agreements guaranteeing apprenticeship, local hiring and collective bargaining are already in place with dozens of agencies and in process with many more. With the right approach, improving critical infrastructure can also provide lifelong, middle-class careers that ensure working families can meet their needs.
Measures are also needed to protect water affordability, as water and wastewater rates are outpacing inflation, making it hard for households to cover these costs.
While wastewater recycling is one critical investment in a resilient and equitable water future, it is certainly not the only approach. We also join many of our partners asking for $200 million in money for direct install conservation programs for low-income households, who are often excluded from rebate programs, as well the passage of legislation allocating $330 million for low-income ratepayer assistance.
In today’s California, access to reliable clean water is tenuous for many. We’re already in a water emergency.
State leaders like Gov. Newsom still have a chance to set us on a course toward safe drinking water and water security for all. They must take it.
Editor’s Note: Bruce Reznik is executive director of LA Waterkeeper.