Colorado River Agreement Offers Opportunity for Comprehensive Planning

TOn one of Los Angeles’ major water treatment plants, just a few miles north of the Port of Los Angeles, a small-scale facility is demonstrating what could be part of the solution to the region’s water problems. Pure Water Southern California’s demonstration plant uses membrane bioreactors, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet radiation to process about 500,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day, further purifying it into something clean enough to use in industry, replenishing the region’s groundwater and potentially reconnect to the city’s drinking water system.

For now, the treated water is simply returned to the ocean. 500,000 gallons wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway: the city’s total water use is about a thousand times what the small pilot project can deliver. But plans are afoot to massively scale up to recycle 150 million gallons of water per day, which would put a dent in the city’s water woes.

Read more: Colorado River drought is a weather warning

The need for such systems has grown more urgent, as water levels in the Colorado River, which supplies Los Angeles and much of the southwestern US, clashes with states over water rights. But a stroke of luck appears to have averted that eventuality for now, with an unusually wet winter replenishing snowpack on the mountains that supply the river’s water. That reprieve helped broker a deal this week between California, Nevada and Arizona, which share access to water from the bottom of the river: More water meant the states could agree to much smaller reductions in water use than the monumental cuts that they originally floated last time. summer.

Now, with those states having avoided a true water reckoning, at least until the terms of the deal expire in 2026, it remains to be seen whether they will use the extra leeway to push for long-term solutions.

“We don’t want to overreact to wet or dry year conditions,” Thomas Piechota, a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at Chapman University, wrote in The hill. “Our government leaders must work together, stay committed to the investments needed to improve infrastructure, and enable innovative solutions for our water future.”

The federal funds may be coming at a good time to help push things in a positive direction. The Biden Administration announced a series of drought resilience measures last month, funded with $15.4 billion set aside for such programs in the 2021 infrastructure bill and last year’s Reduced Inflation Act. These include a water pipeline to help recycle water in Lake Mead and projects to create new groundwater storage systems in California and Utah.

Read more: Arizona faces an existential dilemma: import water or end its housing boom

Still, there are forces that oppose changes in water use in the absence of an emergency, especially in the agricultural sector, which is responsible for 80% of water use in the region. “Water is a valuable asset, and I think people are nervous about getting rid of it, because it suggests you don’t really need it after all,” said George Frisvold, an extension specialist at the University of Arizona. Grinding.

And many long-term reductions in water use may not come fast enough to turn the tide in the next three years. The Pure Water Southern California project is not scheduled to come fully online until 2032, assuming it clears crucial regulatory hurdles. Other California water recycling systems have even longer lead times. For example, a $16 billion plan is in the works for a much larger water conservation effort in Southern California, dubbed Operation Next, which is scheduled for completion in 2058.

That may not be soon enough to prevent more painful cuts in the short term. But with climate change further reducing Western water supplies in the coming decades, long-term investments will likely pay off.

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write to Alejandro de la Garza to [email protected].