Recycled Water: A Necessary Resource for Sustainability

The Earth is a watery place! In images captured from space, we can observe that our planet has more water than land, with water covering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. However, of all the water on Earth, the oceans hold 96.5 percent as saltwater and of the remaining freshwater, only .3 percent is usable by humans and other living things. Meanwhile, the availability of clean water is becoming more unpredictable and variable as a result of climate change. By 2025, the United Nations predicts that 1.8 billion people will reside in areas with absolute water scarcity[1].

Most communities get their water from rivers, lakes, or groundwater reservoirs. Unfortunately, we frequently deplete water from those resources faster than they can replenish themselves: river’s rate of recharge might be hampered by excessive withdrawal, which would also cause the little streams that spawn from it to dry up; and when we overdraft from lakes and groundwater aquifers those sources can also dry up, only recovering if people stop drawing water. With climate change creating greater unpredictability and California potentially entering its fourth year of drought conditions[2], the challenge of maximizing the supply of clean water is one that faces many communities throughout the state. Recycled water can be a critical component of the solution.

Water recycling (also commonly known as water reuse or water reclamation) involves recovering it from various sources, treating it, and using it again for beneficial processes such irrigation and farming, potable (drinking) water production, groundwater replenishment, manufacturing, and environmental restoration. Reusing water can improve water security, sustainability, and resilience while offering alternatives to current water sources.

Recycled water is one of the most strictly regulated water sources in the country and is required to adhere to strict health and safety criteria imposed by the California Department of Health as well as environmental quality standards set by Regional Water Quality Control Board. Recycled water is rigorously inspected and tested on a constant basis by regulatory organizations to guarantee the safety of this water supply.

Nationally, California leads in the way in recycled water use. To promote its use across the state, our Legislature and regulatory bodies have given recycled water regulations top priority. The State Water Resources Control Board adopted a Recycled Water Policy in 2009, amended in 2018, which includes goals for the increased use of recycled water, especially in groundwater-overdrafted and coastal areas, as well as annual reporting requirements statewide for the volume of recycled water produced and used. In 2020, the amount of water recycled in California under the state’s Title 22 regulations grew 6 percent over the previous year to reach 728,000 acre-feet per year, according to new numbers released by the State Water Resources Control Board. Under the California’s Water Supply Strategy released by Governor Newsom last summer, the state is proposing to set a goal to reuse at least 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030 and 1.8 million acre-feet by 2040 and considering greater investments where possible to finance water recycling projects. Additionally, the state water board is developing

“direct potable reuse” regulations that should be complete by 2023, which will allow rigorously treated recycled water to integrate more directly into public drinking water systems.

Within the Russian River watershed, recycled water is used for landscaping, agricultural irrigation, construction, and other authorized uses in communities such as Healdsburg, Rohnert Park, Windsor, and Santa Rosa. As of 2021, the City of Ukiah has completed the first three phases of a new water recycling facility, known as the “purple pipe project,” which provides an additional 1,000 acre-feet per year of water in the Ukiah Valley. The project helps create a more diversified and drought resilient water supply, with 30 percent of Ukiah’s water portfolio now coming from the recycled water facility. Additionally, the facility reduces the city’s wastewater diversions into the Russian river, which helps protect aquatic environments and habitats such as fisheries.

Water recycling has been demonstrated to be an efficient and successful way to create a fresh, dependable water supply while also protecting water quality and public health. As water demands and environmental needs increase, water recycling will play a larger role in our entire water supply. If we work together to overcome obstacles, water recycling, along with water conservation and efficiency, can help us manage our significant water resources sustainably.



This article was authored by Michael Harrigan, Environmental Compliance Specialist for the County of Mendocino on behalf of RRWA. RRWA is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.