As Californians grapple with ways to reduce water usage in the face of an epic drought, from painting brown lawns green to removing yards altogether, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) continues to use drinking water to protect miles of landscaping along medians and embankments in San Diego County.
Each year, the department uses about 720 million gallons of water, enough to supply about 5,700 typical California households for a year. If those households reduced water usage by 25 percent, as Governor Jerry Brown called for April 1, that number would grow to 7,600 households.
Caltrans was required by law in 1986 to switch from using tap to reclaimed water (treated water from sewers) for landscaping “as soon as practical.” In the wake of that law, San Diego spent more than $300 million on water-reclamation plants, which now treat 23 million gallons a day. However, only 12 million gallons of the treated, or reclaimed, water is being used on an average day.
Why? Because the system needed to transport the water to customers such as Caltrans has not been built. Consequently, more than half the reclaimed water is fed back into the sewer system, where it is treated again, and then dumped into the ocean.
“I think it’s a travesty,” former Assemblyman Larry Stirling of San Diego told U-T San Diego. “They’ve had more than 25 years to recognize that Southern California is on the tenuous end of their water supply. Other agencies are going to be ready for this drought, while San Diego dries up and blows away.”
San Diego is working to further expand the system for reclaimed water, which includes more than 600 meters, 130 of which have been added since 2009. The meters are served by 93 miles of “purple pipes” – the transport lines for reclaimed water – up from 88 in 2009.
The city says it has plans for additional connections to Caltrans, whose officials say they are ready to use the recycled water as it becomes available. “We’re the end-user, so if the facility is built and in place, then we take advantage of it and tap into it when we can,” Edward Cartagena, spokesman for Caltrans’ District 11 told U-T San Diego. “We’re using it as it becomes available and we’re continually expanding it in coordination with the city of San Diego.”