California’s Critical Role in Promoting Clean Water Infrastructure

Funding is needed in order to maintain clean water projects

By Adam Link

Clean water infrastructure in California is big. We are home to the Los Angeles Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, the largest wastewater treatment facility west of the Mississippi, and the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System, the world’s largest water reuse project. Hundreds of local wastewater agencies collect and treat hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater every single day to serve a population of almost 40 million people. It is no surprise, then, that the funding needed to develop and maintain these clean water projects is similarly massive.

Impediments to maintaining our infrastructure can come from unexpected places. Every year, improperly disposed wipes clog wastewater collection systems, pumps, and treatment facilities, costing local agencies millions of dollars, thousands of staff hours, and causing sewer spills. CASA recently sponsored state legislation (AB 1672) to require enhanced labeling of wipes that are nonflushable. This legislation follows on past efforts at the state and federal levels to address the wipes issue, and is one way wastewater agencies are banding together to help protect our critical infrastructure.

USEPA estimates that America’s water and wastewater infrastructure requires more than $743 billion worth of investment, and addressing wastewater infrastructure needs alone will require $271 billion.”

California also faces some of the strictest water quality permitting requirements in the nation. Future (and even some existing) permit requirements will require wastewater facilities to address a whole host of issues, including advanced nutrient removal, constituents of emerging concern, and coming to grips with the ubiquitous “PFAS” family of chemicals. Our clean water infrastructure is dynamic and agencies will respond to these changes as they always have: by adopting new technologies, treatment methods and approaches. Of course, water quality is only one aspect of our work. There are many other ways wastewater agencies are contributing, including construction of green infrastructure, innovative water and energy use efficiency projects, and climate resiliency and adaptation measures.

In a state that cycles in and out of drought, one of the most significant ways wastewater agencies can help with water supply concerns is increased water recycling. California is already home to one of the largest recycled water projects in the world, and metropolitan areas like San Diego and Los Angeles, have advanced treatment and recycling projects underway or planned. Advanced treatment and the infrastructure upgrades necessary to increased recycled water distribution are essential to California’s water supply future, and will be an area of emphasis for many agencies in the years to come, particularly those in the drier Southern California regions.

These projects are essential, but not inexpensive. That is why CASA has been a staunch advocate of increasing federal funding for the State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan program as well as increased federal allocations for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program. With our national wastewater association partners, CASA has wholeheartedly supported recent federal proposals to increase SRF allocations, and consistently called for any large infrastructure package to include a significant allocation for water and wastewater projects.

Enhanced clean water infrastructure funding is a win-win on many levels. USEPA estimates that America’s water and wastewater infrastructure requires more than $743 billion worth of investment, and addressing wastewater infrastructure needs alone will require $271 billion. Large scale infrastructure projects create jobs, which is more important than ever as the government pursues efforts to address economic impacts of the pandemic.  Rebuilding our nation’s water infrastructure requires a clear and ongoing commitment of federal assistance, and fortunately, many projects are ready to go right now. Some $7 billion dollars in projects are seeking SRF funding in California. Many of these projects are fully designed and shovel ready, and simply waiting for low cost funding to start building.

Finally, like the rest of the country and the world, the wastewater community has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Water and wastewater operators have always been essential workers. Our agencies are doing an exceptional job coping with the pandemic; managing internal staffing to adjust to social distancing and remote work requirements; educating the public about the efficacy of the treatment process as it relates to COVID-19; and taking a proactive role in tracking the pandemic. Several California wastewater agencies are now using wastewater-based epidemiology to sample wastewater influent for the presence of COVID-19, helping public health officials identify potential virus hotspots and outbreaks long before standard individual testing can.

The wastewater community has demonstrated that increasing investment in water and wastewater infrastructure is essential for public health, beneficial for the environment, and important to our economic future.

Adam Link, CASA Executive Director, is responsible for effectively representing the wastewater community before California’s legislature and regulatory agencies and has more than a decade of experience dealing with wastewater regulatory, legislative and legal issues.

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