Urban Water Conservation: Another Alternative

Lester Snow’s recent editorial, “Drought Serves as Wake-up Call for Major Changes” (Sacramento Bee, July 11), invites renewed focus on “improved urban water conservation.”

California statutes mandate re-use of tertiary treated wastewater by urban communities within their jurisdictions. Re-use of tertiary treated wastewater from de-centralized treatment facilities for purposes that do not require potable water is defined as “beneficial use” of water.

Civil engineering consultants in the Bay area and the San Joaquin Valley already have the knowledge and technology necessary to design and construct specially engineered tertiary wastewater treatment systems to serve new development or retro-fit infill development. The UC Merced Engineering Department has the intellectual ability and resources to assist in the application or improvement of such technology in Merced and the Valley. If implemented, this technology can reduce the demand for potable urban water by almost 30% .

Similarly, financing for de-centralized tertiary wastewater systems is available. Community Facility District (CFD) financing for public police, fire safety services, and infrastructure for public utilities is commonly utilized throughout the state. Public finance consultants are familiar with this financing; and, following the repeal of redevelopment agency statutes, new financing options are being created by consultants, and new legislation will follow.

The financial and environmental benefits of specially engineered community wastewater treatment facilities are numerous. First, using small-scale wastewater treatment systems allows a local government to avoid excess treatment capacity and debt service for development of treatment facilities that are over-sized to anticipate future growth. Second, the use of small-scale community wastewater treatment facilities avoids having to speculate about the rate of future growth and allows the local governments to respond more accurately to real growth, rather than speculate on growth during uncertain future economic conditions.

The failure to use small-scale wastewater facilities imposes an unnecessary burden on the existing local taxpayers and water users. Currently, they pay for excess unused capacity that does not benefit these rate payers—who do not need it, and will never use it. Using tertiary treated wastewater from small-scale de-centralized facilities avoids the cost of having to construct and operate additional unnecessary water conveyance facilities to return the tertiary treated waste water to the users for re-use on site.

Finally, the environmental benefits of small-scale wastewater treatment facilities includes re-use of urban tertiary treated wastewater closer to the original user, as required by statute, which will reduce the total amount of groundwater used. Second, the use of this technology allows local governments to “fine tune” the amount and rate of new growth which will occur in the local community. Third, these systems may be used for both new development and retro-fitting in-fill growth, without expanding or surcharging the existing centralized wastewater treatment facilities. Fourth, charging the residents of the new growth and/or infill development for the cost of their own wastewater treatment facilities and operating expenses will make these residents more aware of their own water use, so they may reduce their use of potable water supplies as much as possible. Fifth, the use of small-scale de-centralized wastewater treatment facilities will reduce demand per capita on groundwater supplies.

Therefore, the current paradigm of hugely expensive large-scale centralized wastewater treatment facilities must be re-examined in the light of currently available wastewater treatment technology and financing. Governor Brown’s administration should aggressively pursue “improved urban conservation” by permitting developers to elect state-of-the-art small-scale de-centralized tertiary wastewater systems for new development. This alternative can be expedited and implemented quickly by executive action. This strategy will save money for local rate payers and will protect environmental resources, while implementing the mandatory “beneficial use” of recycled tertiary treated wastewater.

Mr. Harriman is an environmental and land use attorney who has practiced in the Central Valley for over 39 years.

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