Foreward from Christine Wenzel: This summer I worked with a small group of high schoolers in California, introducing them to climate policy and facilitating their research of a policy solution for a water issue facing their state. Creating opportunities for climate-interested youth to participate in programs that give them practical, hands-on experiences with research, communication, and advocacy is and will continue to be an essential tool in combatting climate change. This article is a report of their research on water recycling, policy implications, and reflections on their first experience in the field of climate policy.
Water is a necessity that is simultaneously controlled and constantly seems to run out. Policy could prove to be a master key in solving the problem of diminishing supply, but water doesn’t seem to be a problem solved with a general solution; one that can only be solved by collective actions. The nature of water makes it difficult to provide everyone with the perfect quality water and enough water. When discussing water policy, a large question comes to mind: what is wrong with our water? For most Americans, this source is readily available in homes, but the hidden backbone of this system lies in the melting glaciers accounting for only 2% of the water on Earth. In total, a little less than 3% of water is considered freshwater and used as potable water, whereas highly salt-concentrated oceans take the other 97%. The harsh truth is that freshwater won’t last very long in Earth’s current climate and the current climate crisis is accelerating this disappearance. To put into perspective the specific dilemmas made in water policy, we would like to explain some of the challenges we encountered when producing a water policy focused on water recycling, hoping to bring the specific issues into a larger scope.
Challenge 1: Public Opinion
There is no question that Californians are worried about their water supply. Since the drought in 2014, water issues have risen to the top of the concerns list; 39% of state residents identify water/drought to be the most pressing issue since May 2015. As time progresses, Californians are paying less attention to water concerns even though it is still a pressing issue. This may be due to the many debates on how to approach it. For example, the feedback on Governor Newson’s Executive Order N-7-22, the State’s requirements for state water businesses and agencies to submit proposals and reports on their water usage levels, has received a variety of responses. Most proponents applaud Newson for his headstrong efforts to reimagine the future. Some say that the plan wasn’t enough to address the issue, while definitive opponents criticize the budget and the initiative’s lack of consideration for infrastructure. There is still no one clear solution for California’s water usage.
This rocky path may be due to the lack of water-use education. Research and previous greywater projects show that long-term results for water recycling, reduced pollution, and saved energy will grow. Overall, the reuse of greywater would immensely improve people’s livelihoods, especially in highly populated areas. Even with these benefits, half of Californians are unwilling or uncertain about using recycled water in their everyday lives. Many precautions of this process arise as a result of the surrounding yuck factor with the water’s origins. The common, derogatory phrase used is “toilet to tap”. With these claims, fear of containment is a major obstacle to overcome when discussing water recycling with the public. However, studies show that 89% of California residents are willing to use recycled water once they learn more about how water recycling is done and its climate change benefits. Many said that they were much more comfortable after seeing a demonstration of the purification process.4 Water recycling may be the scientific process needed to save our future, but first we need to spread the process’s information in order to get everyone involved and on board.
Challenge 2: Infrastructure
Ongoing infrastructure challenges are a major hindrance to the expansive water recycling policies that could be put in place, as they pose a physical and space-related challenge that must consider current systems already in place. Even if policies are set to support and encourage the extension of recycled water in communities, the speed at which construction can successfully support the needed system may not be enough to reach the current goals in place. Most projects are expected to finish around 2040 in California, but that timeline may be too generous in the face of climate change. These projects need to be expanded and accelerated as recycled water will be key to sustaining the large state. The current water transportation infrastructure can be broken down into a few components: transportation of freshwater to sanitizing stations for cleaning, transportation of sanitized water for use, and transportation of wastewater to sanitizing stations for reuse.
When looking at the costs that have been poured into water recycling projects, 15 billion dollars is the projected total for projects that encourage recycled water in all of California. In Los Angeles, recycled water is one of the few solutions that have been proposed to sustain the megacity due to its struggle to transport water from Northern California and the Colorado River. The two main sources of water for Los Angeles have progressively become more stressed as a major drought has impacted the area throughout the last decade.
As for producing recycled water, the production has been suggested to be done on a district-scale level stated by GreenBiz, a company that supports the development of cleaner infrastructure. The district-scale infrastructure is claimed to be the most economical choice between individual-scale infrastructure and municipal-scale infrastructure. The district-scale infrastructure allows for quicker implementation of the recycled water system while supporting multiple people to make it a worthwhile investment. This makes sense, as it allows working in smaller sections of a larger city while also creating a large enough system that can be easier to connect to other systems.
However, even with the potential that the infrastructure can have, the type of project pertaining to the issue largely delays the ability to easily and fully transition to only recycled water. Even though the technology is advanced enough to successfully filter the greywater, space to hold the water is limited, requiring millions of acres and miles of pipeline for the system to work. This space would be hard to augment as large cities may not have room to build reservoirs in places near them and pipelines may take a long time to retrofit the current infrastructure in place. Public policy will need to consider these limitations when developing the systems and may also need to consider future events such as unpredictable weather patterns and severe droughts.
Challenge 3: Technology
The prevalence of pollutants commonly with environmental or human impacts. referred to as contaminants of emerging concern (CEC), has become a constant problem, especially from the perspective of direct and indirect potable use. Research has shown the failure to remove medical compounds, bacteria, and other CEC has raised some public concern. The stigma amongst recycled water has also become a further limitation on public use of drinking recycled greywater, as shown by the mere 26% of San Diego residents in 2020 that approved of water reuse. Even in agriculture and irrigation, the exposure of chemicals in reclaimed water has created a fear of consumption by consumers due to the high uptake of microcontaminants in many crops.
Though indirect use has been shown to filter out many of the bacterial substances through the environmental buffer, the process ends up consuming higher amounts of energy and releasing more carbon emissions, which can make up to 30% of operational costs. These prices have especially been a problem when it comes to large-scale water recycling, where membranes responsible for the filtration process can often become polluted and maintenance costs are therefore higher. This has made the use of these systems less than ideal for many private corporations hoping to implement the machines. In targeting the social and economic conflicts, water recycling must be targeted in a way where the necessary use of water is in alignment with the current state of our filtration systems today, in order to maximize cost and energy efficiency.
Reflecting on Water Policy as Youth:
Throughout this project, I worked with many students interested in the topic along with mentors and industry workers who strive towards creating water policy that can impact the community. As a team of youth, we delved into the long pages of water policy, finding everything we could to eventually develop our own policy by the end of the project. Although sufficing in our proposal, what I realized was the painstaking dilemmas that were ultimately required to have a water policy that drove change. The factors that were related to water policy seemed endless; there always seemed to be another issue of concern once a new solution was made. Whether it ranged from social and political issues, safety and ethics, or economic and environmental considerations, our policy always lacked an element that complicated what we wanted to accomplish. I would like to praise those in this career who have been successful in making policy that has been able to positively impact our community, striving for a cleaner and safer world for generations to come. I’m hoping to study environmental sciences in college and perhaps there will be a day when I become a part of this field. I would like to thank my fellow peers who have helped me along the way, especially Christine and my co-writer Ava. I hope the two of them are able to be successful in their future endeavors either in this field or something that’ll make an impact!
This past summer I was able to collaborate with great, youthful minds across California about extensive research on water recycling. Throughout the process, I was yet again reminded of how hard it is to fight for change. There is so much work and effort that goes on behind the scenes that many people often push aside when they think of government and law. I sympathize with the people who are headstrong in this field because, from my small insightful experience, it always felt like new components would come up the more we researched that needed to be considered.
Although I see that the field is flawed, I want to go into public policy and study political science in college. I want to be a part of the new development of change that is sure to come as my generation comes to the stands. I hope to combine my political passions and STEM knowledge into a powerful tool. The California Water Policy Campaign helped me reaffirm that collaboration is the most important aspect of any project and that the youth of our country are capable of anything when given the resources and chance. Lastly, I’d like to thank Christine Wenzel for bringing me this opportunity and shining a light on a very important cross-sectional topic in California. I’m excited to see what Christine, my co-writer Wilson, and the other lovely members of the campaign do in the future.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.