There’s some fascinating tension around a proposed wastewater reclamation collaboration in Southern California.
The project, if it goes forward, would provide some 150 million gallons per day (~170,000 acre feet per year) of treated effluent. Water now being discharged into the ocean would instead be available for aquifer recharge within Southern California.
There are a number of technical and environmental questions, most notably the project’s cost effectiveness, to be analyzed before the so-called “Regional Recycled Water Program” goes forward. But there’s a really interesting set of institutional threshold questions to be resolved as well, which are lurking in agenda items at this week’s Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board meeting.
Whose Project Should This Be? Local or Regional?
This is a perfect case study for concepts we’ve been discussing in our crazy Zoom session classes this fall with students in the UNM Water Resources Program. The question – where do you draw the boundary(ies) around a water resources problem, and its potential solution.
The preliminary discussions about this project have drawn the boundaries quite broadly. Pilot-scale work has been done through a partnership between Los Angeles County Sanitation District No. 2 and the Metropolitan Water District. Under this model, should the project go forward, the water produced would become a regional supply, alongside water from the Colorado River Aqueduct and State Water Project, which Met provides as a wholesaler to its 26 member agencies.
That’s an institutional model that draws broad boundaries around the project.
Whether that’s the right model, though, is subject to some debate among Metropolitan’s member agencies. The San Diego County Water Authority, for example, seems to favor a more “local control” sort of model, where individual member agencies build their own projects, using the water themselves, rather than having Met build big regional projects, sharing water (and costs) among all.
Should This Be an Interstate Project?
But there is a proposal on the table that would drawn the boundaries even more broadly. In May, Met and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas, Nevada’s big regional water wholesaler, a sort of Met equivalent there) signed a letter of intent that opened the door to SNWA’s possible participation in the Southern California Project. In return for picking up some of the cost, SNWA would get a share of the water. (You wouldn’t actually pipe the water to Las Vegas, that would be crazy expensive, it’s much easier to just do an accounting swap.)
Readers of my work will know that I love deals like this – water bargaining, or sharing, or whatever you call it, collaboration across boundaries. But according to a letter sent over the weekend, San Diego is not so enamored of the idea: “We oppose potential exchange of Colorado River water with other states,” wrote SDCWA board member Michael Hogan on behalf of the agency’s board.
What Happens Next
This is still early days for this project – more study needed, as we academics like to say. But based on Hogan’s letter, there might be some lively discussion at this week’s MWD board meeting about where the boundaries should be drawn.