New legislation in Congress could help accelerate the construction of wastewater recycling facilities in California in a bid to improve severe drought conditions in the state.
In May, California received $23 million from the Interior Department for seven water reclamation and reuse programs throughout the state. But a $180 million project in Sacramento, one of the state’s largest, couldn’t receive any of those funds without approval from Congress.
Under a bill sponsored by Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat, the department’s Bureau of Reclamation could approve eligible projects in states with a federal drought declaration without congressional approval.
“Waiting for Congress to vote to authorize each project simply does not work when we are facing the worst drought in generations,” Matsui said in a statement.
She has been trying for several years to get Congress to authorize a Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District project that would produce 50,000 acre-feet of recycled water a year, which could be used to irrigate 16,000 acres of farmland.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, what two average households use in a year.
The Bureau of Reclamation provides as much of 25 percent of the cost of such projects through its water recycling and reuse program.
Recycled wastewater is a cost-effective and environmentally sound way to alleviate pressure on groundwater supplies, supporters say. It’s already used in California to provide water for agriculture and habitat management. In the future, it may become a source of drinking water.
The Sacramento project could give farmers a reliable water source and conserve groundwater for human consumption, whether drought conditions exist or not.
“Recycled water is a drought-proof water supply,” said Prabhakar Somavarapu, district engineer for the Sacramento Area Sewer District.
Water recycling is one tool California is using to weather the drought. Though California doesn’t currently allow human consumption of recycled water, there are pilot projects. Orange County, for example, uses 70 million gallons a day of recycled water to replenish groundwater supplies. San Diego recently approved a similar facility.
Unlike those projects, however, facilities like the one in Sacramento would use recycled water for watering crops, golf courses, parks, lawns and even cemeteries.
Nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium and boron may be present in the recycled water, according to the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, a recycled water supplier in southern California. Those nutrients can act as natural fertilizers for irrigated crops.
Last year, the State Water Resources Control Board approved $800 million in low-interest loans to build water recycling facilities within three years. Somavarapu anticipates moving forward with the Sacramento project next year after environmental reviews are complete and state permits are issued. The facility could be operational by 2021.
While the federal funding isn’t absolutely necessary to build it, Somavarapu said it helps make things go faster.
“There’s a role for the federal government in this,” he said. “This can’t be done entirely at the local level.”