A Constitutional Victory and a Major Step Towards Water Independence

By: Bruce Reznik

The days are numbered for the environmentally disastrous and economically costly practice of ‘pump-and-dump’, which has defined California’s water planning for more than a century. LA Waterkeeper (LAW) just won a historic court victory against the State’s Water Resource Control Board as part of our efforts to ensure the sustainability of California’s water resources.  

Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, Credit; Doc Searls

What a Waste 

Simply put, the LA region remains far too dependent on inefficient, energy-intensive, environmentally harmful and increasingly unreliable imported water supplies. It is obviously wasteful and unreasonable to pump water great distances over mountain ranges, use it once, and then basically throw it away – and yet that is just what’s been happening at water-treatment plants throughout the LA area, including the four facilities that were the subject of this lawsuit (Hyperion, Tillman, Burbank and LA-Glendale). This unreasonable waste of imported water contributes to climate change, has had devastating impacts on sensitive ecosystems across California and the west (Bay-Delta, Colorado River, Owens Valley), and increasingly puts the region’s 10 million residents, tens of thousands of businesses, and our local economy at risk from interruptions in supply.   

We must combat these threats by aggressively pursuing sustainable, low-carbon, local water supplies.  As such, LAW has long advocated for a Reduce (water waste), Reuse (urban and stormwater runoff), Recycle (wastewater) and Restore (groundwater) approach to LA’s water supplies.   

With approximately 500 million gallons (MGD) of treated wastewater being discharged directly into our coastal waters daily, and more than 100 MGD discharged into rivers and creeks before ultimately hitting our coastal waters, recycled wastewater offers a tremendous opportunity to make LA more water secure.  In fact, recycling most of this wastewater could provide up to a third of the region’s water supply.   

Watershed Ruling 

Recognizing the critical role that water plays in the arid west, the California Constitution since 1928 has mandated that “the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented.” Yet, Article X section 2 (also known as the ‘waste and unreasonable use doctrine’) remains an obscure, often misunderstood and largely untested Constitutional provision.  Historically invoked to prevent upstream water waste from impacting downstream communities, LA Waterkeeper contended that what constitutes ‘waste and unreasonable use’ must be more expansive in light of today’s increasingly strained water supplies, especially as climate change makes our water future even more uncertain. CA Superior Court Judge James Chalfant concurred, finding that “[t]he State Board is the state agency in charge of the comprehensive planning and allocation of water…”, and their duty extends to “prevent…unreasonable use of wastewater discharge.” Chalfant then concluded that, “[h]aving conducted no analysis, the State Board cannot demonstrate a rational connection between its decision to do nothing to prevent waste and its constitutional and statutory duty to do so.”   

A Win for the Environment and CA’s Future 

As a result of this landmark victory, the State Water Board will have to undertake a comprehensive analysis to determine the potential for recycling water from these four facilities and its implications for more holistic water planning.  

Hyperion Water Reclamation. Credit: Mayor Eric Garcetti

While this ruling applies directly to the four sewage treatment plants – and the nearly 270MGD they discharge into the LA River and Santa Monica Bay – we believe the decision has much further reaching impactions. It can easily be applied to the other major sewage treatment plants in the LA region and throughout California. And one can imagine that Chalfant’s logic could even be applied to insufficient capture and reuse of urban and stormwater runoff, or to inadequate groundwater remediation. As a result, we believe this historic ruling will be the catalyst for: 

  • Reduced water imports and greater water security through increased local water supplies, putting billions of gallons of wastewater to use rather than wastefully dumping it into the ocean 
  • Reduced carbon footprint by minimizing our reliance on energy-intensive imports from Northern California and ocean desalination plants 
  • Reduced pollution to our inland and coastal waters, and reduced strain on ecosystems throughout the West that are already on the brink of collapse 

Ultimately, ratepayers and our economy will also benefit from this decision. Converting the region’s wastewater treatment plants to water recycling facilities will generate tens of thousands of construction and operations jobs – a much-needed boon for the local economy. And investment in wastewater recycling – despite significant up-front capital costs – can ultimately save money by reducing water imports, eliminating the need to fund costlier water supply projects, providing greenhouse emission reductions, and reducing environmental harm and mitigation payments.   

The ruling on the Waste and Unreasonable Use case is ultimately a victory for Los Angeles, a victory for California, a victory for a sustainable water supply for our future, as well as a victory towards climate resilience. It is time for the State to take Integrated Water Management much more seriously as a means to improve water supply resiliency and sustainability. 

Contact Us

LA Waterkeeper
120 Broadway, Suite 105
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Email: info@lawaterkeeper.org
Phone: 310-394-6162
Fax: 310-394-6178

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