Droughts are ravaging the US — it’s time to get serious about water recycling

A man and child drink water from blue cups near a van that reads "Direct Potable Reuse"
AP Photo/Brittany Peterson
Connor Sonnenberg, foreground left, and Billy Kinn, foreground right, drink wastewater that was sterilized at the PureWater Colorado Mobile Demonstration using a method that involves carbon-based purification.

Following the release of a dire new International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report this month, which warns of accelerating threats to our environment and society, community leaders from across the country are convening in Washington, D.C. for Water Week 2022. From today through Saturday, Water Week organizers will send a strong message to Congress and the administration about the need to secure our water future. Water recycling is a particularly critical tool for mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Water recycling can bring relief to communities ravaged by drought, provide flood control during periods of intense rain and produce water safe for any use. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November 2021, invests $1 billion over five years in water recycling programs for the Western United States. This is a historic investment in water resiliency, but the job is not nearly done. The next steps are just as critical.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced last month that nearly 60 percent of the U.S. is experiencing some level of drought, including severe conditions that threaten wildfires, heatwaves and low precipitation. States along the Colorado River Basin have entered into agreements to reduce their demands on the dwindling river, including recycling local water to make up the difference. This Water Week, we’re focused on a series of remaining actions that will help unleash the full potential of water recycling across the United States.

First, we must fund the Pilot Program for Alternative Water Source Grants. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes this program at $25 million per year for five years, which would allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make competitive grants to engineer, design, construct and test water recycling facilities. While federal funding for water recycling has historically been focused on the arid West, this program would allow communities in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to access water recycling tools that solve local water challenges such as cleaning up sensitive waterways and preventing sewer overflows. Congress can achieve this by meeting the president’s $25 million budget request for the pilot program in the fiscal year 2023.

The act also directs the administration to establish a federal Interagency Working Group on Water Reuse, which will break down silos, leverage resources throughout the federal family and facilitate stakeholder engagement. In honor of Water Week, it’s time to convene this working group and begin elevating the concept of water recycling throughout the federal government.

Finally, we urge Congress to establish a tax credit to encourage industrial facilities to adopt water recycling. Approximately 45 percent of municipal drinking water is used for industry, from manufacturing everyday products to cooling data centers. Water recycling can improve water reliability for industrial facilities, support job creation and promote sustainable use of our limited natural resources. We recommend a tax credit of up to 30 percent of the project value when purchasing, designing and installing systems that increase water recycling.

Water reuse is a national solution that can be tailored to address many local challenges. Faced with the worsening impacts of drought and climate change, the City of Los Angeles has committed to recycling 100 percent of its water by 2035. Local recycling will protect the city’s residents from water shortages caused by diminished rainfall, natural disasters and competing demands on the Colorado River. 

Across the country in Virginia, Hampton Roads — home to one-fourth of the nation’s active-duty military personnel and approximately 50,000 federal civilian jobs — is also turning to water recycling. The combination of over-pumped groundwater and sea-level rise has caused flooding, land subsidence and saltwater seeping into the drinking water aquifer, placing the region’s $36 billion annual defense-related economic output at risk. To address these challenges, Hampton Roads Sanitation District is recycling water to drinking standards and pumping it back into the regional aquifer.

Americans can be proud of the historic investment in our environment made possible by last year’s infrastructure act. Now is a moment of great opportunity for our leaders in the White House, Congress, and in our own communities to reap the many benefits of recycled water. Let’s not stop now: Let’s take the next steps in piloting new solutions, building interagency collaboration and engaging our country’s industries to create a more sustainable future.

Craig Lichty is client director and vice president for Black & Veatch and president of the WateReuse Association. Patricia Sinicropi is the executive director of the WateReuse Association and has nearly two decades of experience as a policy expert and advocate on water-related issues in Washington, D.C. The WateReuse Association represents a coalition of utilities and businesses that support the development of recycled water.

Tags California drought Climate change Drought in the United States Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act water crisis

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