Commentary: Why Orange County and California’s drinking water should not go to waste

Orange County Coastkeeper is advocating support of a clean water bill and reclaimed wastewater as an alternative to desalination and other costly options.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

California is in a drinking water crisis. Across the state, residents pay billions of dollars for clean drinking water — and we use this water only once.

We drink the water, then it goes to coastal sewage treatment plants, which carry out various levels of sewage treatment, then gets dumped into the ocean through outfall pipes as partially treated sewage, harming the ecosystem in the area. Billions of gallons of treated wastewater is dumped into our California coast each day, and with it, billions of resident dollars are quite literally going to waste.

Why aren’t we utilizing available solutions to stop this sewage discharge and capitalize on our people’s investment in clean drinking water?


Orange County Coastkeeper is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 332, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys). This bill recognizes the reuse potential of wastewater by requiring all coastal sanitation districts to reduce ocean wastewater discharge by 50% by 2030 and 95% by 2040, and to utilize this water for safe drinking. Is this achievable for California?

Luckily, we have developed technology to treat and reuse almost any water. Recently, Gov. Newsom released an executive order to increase California’s water security by developing local water supplies, urging our state to use every drop of water wisely and to take advantage of recycling water rather than discharging it into the ocean.

Technology in our state is at a point where we can even take raw sewage and turn it into nearly distilled water. This treatment process is now a proven safe source of public drinking water in Orange County. By using an advanced water treatment system, we produce millions of gallons each day of almost-distilled water from sewage.

And at three times the cost, California should not consider the much more energy-intensive process of desalinating ocean water. In most cases, desalination makes absolutely no sense (unless you have no other options for safe water). We should stop efforts toward desalination and take advantage of this pure water water treatment technology across the California coast. Senate Bill 332 will help us get there.

Frequently, Orange County leads the way for other agencies across the state on water issues and water technology. Orange County Water District built the first-of-its kind advanced treatment facility, and Orange County Sanitation District has already significantly reduced its ocean discharge, and it voluntarily set a goal of “zero discharge” to the ocean. It’s time that Orange County leads the charge once more.

Coastkeeper commends both agencies for their leadership on the reuse of wastewater and urges support of this bill to ensure other sanitation districts in California follow the lead established in Orange County. With Senate Bill 332, we start to pull California out of its single-use water crisis and ensure our safe drinking water doesn’t go to waste.

Garry Brown is founding director of Orange County Coastkeeper.

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