Lake Mead, which supplies water to 25 million people in the American West, has shrunk to 36% of its capacity. A rural community in California has completely running out of water after the rupture of its well in early June. The fields lie fallow, as farmers sell their water allocations instead of cultivating, putting the country’s food supply in danger.
As the West withers from extreme drought, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced HR 4099, a bill that would order the Home Secretary to create a program to fund $ 750 million in water recycling projects in the 17 western states through 2027. (The bill, which was introduced at the end of June, is currently before the House Committee on Natural Resources.)
“This is starting to be our new normal: 88% of the West is subject to some degree of drought,” said Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nevada), who introduced The law project. “Lake Mead is at the lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam. And the Colorado River has been in a drought for more than two decades. “
All the while, the population and economy of the western United States was booming, putting enormous pressure on a dwindling water supply. “We have, I guess, more people – one. And there is an increase in farm area – two, ”said Representative Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Who introduced the bill. “And then climate change makes the problem worse. “
Part of the solution, according to lawmakers, is to fund the construction of more facilities that can recycle the wastewater that drains from our sinks, toilets and showers. You might think that’s crass and absurd, but the technology is already out there – in fact, it’s been around for half a century. The process is actually quite simple. A wastewater treatment plant absorbs wastewater and adds microbes that consume organic matter. The water is then pumped through special membranes that filter out bad guys like bacteria and viruses. To be even safer, the water is then blown out with UV light to kill the germs. The resulting water can in fact be too much pure for human consumption: if you drank it, the product could leach minerals from your body, so the establishment must add more minerals. (I once drank the final product. It tastes like… water.)
The recycled H2O can be pumped underground into aquifers, then pumped again when needed, purified once more and sent to customers. Or it can instead be used for non-potable purposes, such as for agriculture or industrial processes.
Basically, you take wastewater that would normally be treated and pumped out to sea – wasting it, really – and you put it back into the earth’s water cycle, making it easily accessible to people again. “Part of what makes it so important as part of water supply wallets is its reliability,” says Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. “To the extent that urban centers exist and produce wastewater, it can be treated. This provides a reliable source of additional water supply, even in dry years, when the supply is limited and the development of alternative sources would be difficult, if not impossible.
Recycled water is also bankable, in a sense: injecting it underground to recharge aquifers stores it for use during droughts. This is likely to be particularly important in the American West, as climate change makes droughts more punitive. and futzing with the dynamics of the rain. Modeling by climatologists shows that future storms will be more intense, but will happen less often. And by the end of the century, the mountain snowpack, which normally holds much of the western water until it melts in spring runoff, is expected to decline by about half.
“Our hydrological cycle will become more and more unpredictable,” says Rafael Villegas, program manager for the Operation NEXT at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has been recycling water since the 1970s for non-potable reuse. “Coupled with population growth, not only here in California, but where the water is coming from – Nevada, Arizona, and Northern California – you can expect there to be additional demand on these systems. So we’re at the end of the straw, aren’t we? We must then start to think, how to become more efficient with water than we do to have?”