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Managing Wastewater in a Changing Climate

Summary

California’s wastewater sector, which plays a crucial role in protecting public health and the environment, is at a turning point. Water supply and demand conditions are being affected by population growth, technology and policy changes, and drought. Climate change will bring new challenges.

Wastewater agencies are tasked with reliably removing pollutants from water discarded to sewers, even as the quantity and quality of the water they treat declines. Of the multiple climate pressures that are likely to affect wastewater management, drought poses the biggest challenge for the sector. The unusually hot drought of 2012–16 provided a vivid demonstration of conditions that may become more common as the climate warms, and was a wake-up call for wastewater agencies.

Many wastewater agencies are pursuing specific changes to their operations, infrastructure, or finances in response to the cascade of challenges they experienced during the latest drought. A PPIC survey of wastewater agencies done as part of this study found a high degree of concern in the sector about adapting to a changing climate. This report recommends policy and management changes to help build resilience in three broad areas:

  • Maintaining water quality in the face of changing water use. Wastewater management is challenged by short-term water conservation during droughts and longer-term reductions in water use from indoor efficiency measures—conditions which are largely beyond the sector’s control. Reductions in indoor water use can damage infrastructure and reduce the effectiveness of existing treatment processes. Such challenges may grow as severe droughts become more frequent with climate change and as water efficiency increases. Better coordination and information sharing with water suppliers, and sector-wide planning for future droughts, are key to addressing these changes.
  • Making smart recycled water investments. Wastewater agencies produce highly treated water that is increasingly being reused as a water supply. Coordination among wastewater and water supply agencies is essential to respond to the increasing demand for recycled water. Formalized planning for recycled water projects at the regional level will likely lead to more efficient processes and better outcomes. New investments must be responsive to changing water use, climate change, and pending regulations.
  • Balancing conflicting objectives within watersheds. Most wastewater treatment plants discharge treated water into inland watersheds. Adapting to declining water use and meeting increased demand for recycled water may conflict with environmental objectives and the demands of downstream users. Rivers and streams are expected to experience lower flows and higher temperatures, which will heighten threats to aquatic ecosystems. Resources to identify areas most at risk of conflict over the use of treated wastewater are needed, as are tools to evaluate the impacts of water recycling projects on the environment and downstream water users. The state should also analyze its policies to identify tradeoffs and resolve conflicts between its water supply, water quality, and environmental goals.

Advancements in engineering and technology can help wastewater agencies adapt to a changing climate―but shifts in policy and planning will facilitate a more efficient and effective path toward building resilience. The latest drought provided a window into the looming challenges facing the wastewater sector. Forging new partnerships and evaluating the full range of climate-related risks will help the sector determine the best adaptations and policy improvements needed to prepare the wastewater sector for a more volatile future.

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