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New regulations will turn California wastewater to drinking water. Here's what we know

California wastewater can be turned to drinking water under new regulations
California wastewater can be turned to drinking water under new regulations 02:09

SACRAMENTO - The future of water may be changing in California. The state Water Resources Control Board has signed off on regulations to turn more recycled wastewater from our homes into drinking water. 

The regulations were approved unanimously by the board on Tuesday and now give the go-ahead for local water agencies to plan to turn wastewater into water we can drink through a process called Direct Potable Reuse.

Darrin Polhemus, the division of drinking water director with the State Water Resources Control Board, said this approval was a very big step for California. 

"It really will be the highest quality water delivered in the state when it's done," Polhemus said.

California's new rules would let, but not require, local water agencies to take wastewater from toilets or showers, treat it, and then put it right back into the drinking water system.

"Direct potable reuse is just a really critical strategy for our state to have as we move to this new hydrology that we have, and as everyone has already said, increasing our resilience and reducing our reliance on imported water," said Laurel Firestone, board member for the State Water Resources Control Board.

Most of California's wastewater is reused now through agriculture, outdoor irrigation or for facilities where treated water soaks into the ground to replenish aquifers.

The new process would take the already recycled water through various stages of treatment, passing through activated carbon filters and reverse-osmosis membranes, as well as undergoing disinfection with UV light, among other treatments.

Polhemus said that not only would the water be treated to meet drinking water standards, but it would go through extra processes to remove pathogens and viruses more than once. 

"There's always going to be three different levels of treatment provided so if one fails there's still two remaining in its place as backups to make sure that nothing goes untreated," Polhemus said. 

Using the wastewater instead of relying only on reservoirs and local water supplies will help to boost the overall state supply in the years we end up dry. It also would help keep drops from going to waste. 

"We have rain now, but we're very likely to experience a dry period again, and wastewater is always a reliable source. Every community, even during a drought, generates wastewater," Polhemus said.  

Although it may start small, state water officials say the new regulations would give a boost of up to 15% to each agency that takes it on. 

"What we've learned in the last decade of droughts in California is you can't rely on one water source all the time. Some of them are wet some years and some are not, and that variability is going to increase," Polhemus said.  

After the board approved it Tuesday, it now heads to the Office of Administrative Law next year before local water agencies can vote on whether they want it in their cities. 

"Nobody is going to do this without first going through a public process, educating the public, getting their OK with it, and moving forward," Polhemus said. 

Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom called for increasing recycled water use in California roughly 9% by 2030 and more than doubling it by 2040.

California is now the second state to adopt direct potable reuse following Colorado.

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