Different Flavors for Different Uses: A One Water Framework for American Infrastructure

With drought in the southwest, flooding in the southeast and Midwest, and climate change related disasters threatening the east coast, America’s water supply today feels uncertain, if not explicitly in danger. Improving our water management plans to better sustain our current water supply needs is a necessity. One way to accomplish this is by enabling a One Water framework. The idea of One Water is not new, and yet implementing such a water management policy across the US has become increasingly difficult, due to both permitting and regulatory concerns but also due to our inability to rethink the way we utilize and deal with the natural water cycle. According to the Water Research Foundation, “One Water is an integrated planning and implementation approach to managing finite water resources for long-term resilience and reliability, meeting both community and ecosystem needs.” One water is all about managing water holistically; it is about reusing water in creative and intuitive ways and using various water supplies of varying qualities for their most appropriate uses. Working towards the innovative collection and reuse of our most essential resource is critical to ensuring that we build and maintain a human water cycle built for the future. We must not foolishly assume that we will be able to use drinking water for flushing toilets, irrigating grass, or operating cooling towers in the future. But understanding how we implement such a framework is equally as important as the framework itself.

Today, One Water is just an idea – one that utilities and cities and consulting engineers have spent millions of dollars developing reports about but have never actually implemented. And the timing between planning development and implementation is vital as we consider how technology will continue to improve over the next several decades. Los Angeles, for one, finished its planning stage in 2018 and is not projected to be fully implemented until 2040. In Carson, California, a 500,000-gallon-per-day demonstration facility to recycle Los Angeles’ wastewater has been constructed and is now being tested, potentially to pave the way for a full-fledged facility treating and reusing 1.5 billion gallons of water daily for reuse across Los Angeles. While such large-scale infrastructure lends itself to powerful headlines and political slogans, regional-scale infrastructure will likely be an impediment to, rather than a catalyst for, a truly One Water infrastructure system. Instead of building a Carson project that would require sixty miles of purple pipe to be laid through streets such as Westwood Blvd and disrupting one of the most gridlocked cities in the world to transport the purified water, it would make far more sense to deploy a series of decentralized systems across the city to supply water locally. Instead of building 10-million-gallon capacity tanks across the city to capture rainwater during the five days a year that it rains in Los Angeles, perhaps it would be wiser for the city to spend its money in ways tailored to local realities – enabling green infrastructure to more efficiently capture rainwater or financing desalination facilities to supply a drought-proof supply. Sylmar understands the merits of a One Water system yet believes that cities from Los Angeles to New York City need to better design their infrastructure to be geared towards action – focusing on near term implementation, adoption of new technologies, and adaptation to the realities of tomorrow.

More resilient, more sustainable, and more tailored water use will create a more appropriate form of infrastructure that maximizes the value of our limited water supply. The idea of One Water may seem obvious, yet its most efficient implementation feels incredibly distant. Just like there is no reason that we should be flushing potable water down the toilet, we should also not be spending on facilities that won’t be built for the next 25 years or on tanks that will have a less than five percent utilization rate. Sylmar believes in One Water’s principles and views it as an excellent framework for assessing water issues, but believes current proposals are too slow and too staid. Now is the time to make progress and to be creative as we plan a One Water system – there is too much at stake to continue to operate as we do today.