San Jose and Santa Clara pay a fortune to purify wastewater — really purify it — and then spill most of it away.
We can’t afford to do that any more. Water is too precious, and the alternatives, like desalination, are even more expensive and potentially polluting. Silicon Valley needs a system to re-use treated water that exceeds state standards for drinking. The technology is proven. Orange County residents have been drinking recycled water for seven years.
A coalition including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews, Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino and Santa Clara Valley Water District President Gary Kremen are leading the charge for an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to help speed construction of an $800 million comprehensive purification system so recycled water can be percolated back into the ground for general use.
If the exemption is granted, it easily could shave two years and $3 million in costs from what otherwise is expected to be a 10-year project. Two years will be critical if what we now see as a devastating drought proves to be the new normal for California’s climate.
The state should grant the exemption. As Guardino argues, if it can exempt a planned NFL stadium near Los Angeles from CEQA, surely it can exempt a project to deal with what Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.
Environmentalists are lining up to oppose the CEQA exemption, even though they say they favor using recycled water. They want to preserve the detailed review of construction plans for the plant and pipe systems. Given the urgency of shoring up our water supply, it’s a weak argument.
The plan eventually could supply 20 percent of Santa Clara County’s water needs. Today only 5 percent of treated water is recycled, and only for landscaping, so it requires a whole separate, multimillion dollar system of distinguishable “purple pipe” to distribute it.
Public officials will need to combat the yuck factor in drinking recycled water: Yes, it comes from toilets, showers, dishwashers and the like, along with surface runoff into storm sewers. But by the time it goes through purification and then seeps from percolation ponds through the soil to replenish groundwater, it will be every bit as pure as the water we now drink. Remember, percolation ponds are home to fish, birds and all kinds of, um, polluting creatures now. Soil is an effective purifier.
We like to see Silicon Valley lead in innovation, but it’s following in this case. Not only Orange County but El Paso, Texas, is using or planning to use recycled water. Some East Bay communities that proposed it several years ago — when it still used to rain — are reviving proposals.
Valley leaders are showing courage to take this on. The Legislature and the governor need to help by granting a CEQA exemption.