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Can Saving Southern California’s Beaches Save The Colorado River?

Let’s start with 2 questions:

1. What is one of the most significant actions a Colorado River basin city can take to meet its future water supply needs and protect the Colorado River?

2. What is one of the most significant actions a Southern California coastal city can take to meet its future water supply needs and protect its beaches and nearby ocean?

And now let’s answer to both questions: Water Recycling and Reuse

As water supplies are stretched thinner throughout the Colorado River basin, inland cities such as Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque should look to Southern California for partial answers to water supply challenges.  Coastal Southern California cities are in a unique position of importing large percentages of their water from two sources – the Colorado River and the northern California rivers in the San Joaquin Valley – and neither of these sources will likely ever provide more water.  So in order to address growing populations in San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties, municipal water districts and environmental groups are charting a new path forward with some innovative wastewater and stormwater reuse and recycling programs that provide two big benefits for their region:

First, stormwater runoff is the single biggest polluter of beaches throughout Southern California.  Whenever it rains, the runoff from streets, urban landscapes, and industrial areas rushes into ditches and storm sewers, then into creeks and rivers and then the ocean.  This pollution in this runoff is a monumental problem that fowls and closes beaches, kills marine life, and costs the coastal economy billions of dollars per year.  Capturing the runoff before it hits the ocean and purifying it for irrigation or drinking water provides large-scale environmental protections and economic savings for beach communities.

Second, San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties are also growing and have significant water supply challenges.  Capturing and recycling stormwater runoff can offer a significant increase in “new water” available for landscape irrigation and drinking water.  In addition, recycling wastewater that is discharged from wastewater treatment plants and simply dumped into the ocean can also supplement water supplies.  By capturing, treating, and reusing, and recycling stormwater and wastewater, coastal cities can help meet the needs of growing populations while decreasing their reliance on the Colorado River. 

Enter Waterkeepers

San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties all have “Waterkeepers” – non-profit environmental groups affiliated with the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance – that work to address the two issues above:  ocean and beach health, and water supply sustainability.  “San Diego Coastkeeper,” “Orange County Coastkeeper,” and “Los Angeles Waterkeeper” are all environmental groups that have staff working on ocean protection and water supply issues and have received grants from the Save The Colorado River campaign for addressing alternative water supply opportunities.

Orange County Coastkeeper:  Orange County has one of the most aggressive alternative water supply programs in the U.S.  The Director of the organization, Garry Brown, has been helping to lead that effort for many years.  Orange County and its several municipal and regional water suppliers have forged ahead and built the “world’s largest indirect potable resuse” wastewater recycling facility.  They’ve also spearheaded programs around groundwater recharge and stormwater retainment.  In the near future, the area, as well as the Coastkeeper organization, are proposing to work on stormwater capture and recycling programs that, in the words of Garry Brown, “can make Orange County be 100% water supply sustainable.”  Brown even foresees a day when Orange County could wean itself off of Colorado River water and just use it for backup and drought protection.

San Diego Coastkeeper:  San Diego has also implemented a smaller-scale wastewater recycling facility that is capable of purifying about 1 million gallons of water per day.  This water supply is a demonstration project intended to help pave the way for a larger conversation about increased capacity for wastewater recycling.  In addition, San Diego is just beginning to have a conversation about stormwater capture and reuse.  Jill Witkowski, who heads up this work for the organization and helps direct the regional “Water Reliability Coalition,” foresees plenty of opportunity to recycle both stormwater and wastewater in San Diego.   The City and County Water Authorities are both considering programs and the Coastkeeper is helping to push that conversation forward.

Los Angeles Waterkeeper:  The Los Angeles area has recently launched a conversation with several local governments about stormwater capture and reuse.  The opportunities for reuse and recycling in Los Angeles County are immense because much of the urban surface is paved or developed and abuts the ocean or streams running near and directly into the ocean.  The Los Angeles Waterkeeper, led by Liz Crosson, is helping to spearhead this conversation by working together with regional governmental agencies.  As in the other areas of Southern California, capturing and recycling stormwater in Los Angeles may be significantly less expensive than buying more water rights or pursuing desalination and thus appeals to a wide variety of stakeholders.

The Save The Colorado River campaign supports this work of the Southern California Waterkeepers because we see it as the cutting edge of where the rest of the Colorado River basin needs to go in terms of alternative water supply planning.  Because Southern California is very unlikely to get any more water out of the Colorado River or from northern California, it must move forward with alternative approaches.  Unfortunately, in most of the rest of the basin, more dam/diversion/pipeline projects are proposed to further drain and destroy the Colorado River and its tributaries.  The Save The Colorado River campaign see it this way:  Let’s stop draining our rivers, and instead implement alternatives now.  If we drain the rivers first, we are going to be in Southern California’s position in 20 years anyway, so why not just do the right thing now and keep our rivers alive for future generations?!

Of course, we are not suggesting that Southern California is a bastion of sustainability.  Much, much more could be done in Southern California around growth management and water conservation, and the current disturbing trajectory toward desalination poses significant environmental and financial risks.  But because Southern California can’t get more water out of rivers, they are also forging ahead with alternatives – reuse and recycling – to river draining schemes.

And so let’s face it: If San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles can do it, why can’t Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Tucson do it?  We think they can!

We can protect our beaches and oceans, and the Colorado River!  Please check out the work of these Southern California Waterkeepers, and also please work in your local watershed to implement more sustainable water supply alternatives.

Thank you for your support – stay tuned for more information about saving the Colorado River!

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