The need for a 21st century water management policy for California is abundantly clear. Not only is a vision required, but also the leadership to overcome myriad bureaucratic and political obstacles to develop the necessary legislation to support the policy and implement it. The resort to emergency mode earlier this year underscores the lack of a clear long-term plan to guide the competing demands for water in this state. The issue is daunting and its complexity has immobilized decision-makers. The purpose of this paper is to suggest one pathway out that is quickly and easily achieved and can serve as a starting point: The immediate introduction of incentives for graywater and rainwater harvesting in California.
I have tried both of these methods of water capture and reuse and have found them to be so compelling that I believe they should be integral to any effective water management scheme for California. These easy solutions will not only minimize water wastage and protect the environment, they will also create jobs, empower citizens to proactively manage their water use and lead to statewide savings of water and money.
Both rain harvesting and graywater are intended for water uses other than drinking water (at present). Yet the actual effect of their use this way is to reduce the reliance on drinking water for purposes for which it is neither beneficial nor appropriate. It leaves treated water for the ever-increasing numbers of Californians (according to population projections) who will need it for drinking purposes.
The energy cost of treated water is high, so if we can keep the energy cost fixed while serving more people, we are ahead of the game.
Rain From the Sky, Not From the Road
Public utilities are not currently capturing, creating or otherwise making available the full complement of water possible. At the present time, drinking water is derived about equally from surface water (freshwater streams) and groundwater in our state. The mere act of using less of a utility company’s water is not the same as capturing additional water through rain harvesting and graywater systems (despite the fact that both situations would be considered water conservation measures).
What if the water companies captured rainwater and treated it for drinking purposes? Done correctly, technologically speaking, treatment might not even be necessary or could be accomplished very simply.
In response to predictable droughts, we need to reconsider the definition of water. All types of water are not equal. Heiner Markhoff, president and CEO of GE Water and Process Technologies states in a recent article related to a forum on water reuse (“The Economic Power of Water”) sponsored by his company and the Wharton School of Business West:
“Permitting requirements often mandate that all water must be potable, regardless of its intended use. Yet we don’t need the most pure, drinking-water-quality water for everything. Treated wastewater can be used to irrigate golf courses and parks, leaving more potable water available for drinking water and home use. An industrial plant or a refinery’s cooling systems can use treated wastewater as effectively as potable water. […] In many cities, building and plumbing codes prohibit the installation of dual plumbing systems that would allow for recycled water use for functions such as waste disposal. After all, do we really need drinking-quality water in our toilets?”
Dealing with water scarcity, he notes, requires a forward-looking approach that builds on conservation, reuse and improved technology.
Other advantages of the low-tech water capture measures I advocate are that they help keep water on site (now required by developers for new construction under stormwater codes), restore groundwater levels (critical in our sinking state), reduce creek pollution and minimize drainage and flooding concerns.
They serve as a bridge to the larger scale projects that will be needed to replace California’s aging water infrastructure – projects that require a huge investment of time and money and are long-term actions. Finally, low tech water capture by everyone, in some form, truly focuses the water issue on a local level by demonstrating manageable solutions on the basis of a single household or business as compared to the overwhelming- often ambiguous – all-encompassing state level.
The ”Phew” Effect….
There is urgency now to all of this because meaningful long-rang planning that began in the early 1980s (with a conference in Monterey of a diverse group of stakeholders [see Department of Water Resources Report 213]) did not result in a state-wide water management plan. When the drought of the late 1970s ended, so did the motivation to encourage water conservation
Some topics to be considered in developing a sound water policy that is equitable for a diversity of users are listed below. An easy way to remember the competing demands for water is with the acronym BARRIE (Biology, Agriculture, Recreation, Recycling, Industry, Energy).
- should water-intensive crops be allowed in an arid state (almonds, walnuts, citrus, cotton) and what criteria will be used to evaluate their economic and environmental impacts relative to other food sources (e.g. water/unit of protein when comparing almond growing to cattle raising)?
- should fracking be considered a legitimate use of water?
- what type of water distribution system will replace the broken storm drain system?
- how can we greatly increase the use of non-potable water (e.g. to keep dust down at construction sites or maintain plantings along city streets)?
- how will we replenish groundwater levels and insure the quality of this water (as groundwater is currently being used up faster than it can be replenished)?
- when will tax incentives for water conservation systems be broadly implemented?
- when will pesticides and other toxic substances be forbidden entirely from entering the state’s waters from a variety of sources?
- will water from California continue to be permitted to leave the state in plastic bottles?
These are but a few of the questions of concern. Regardless of where we live in the state or how we are employed, we are all stakeholders in this one. When it comes to water, we simply cannot live without it!
This is the first part in a four-part series. To read the other installments, click below: