Historically, semiarid regions of the Southwest United States have heavily relied on the Colorado River as a freshwater source. However, ever since these states negotiated the Colorado River Compact in the early 20th Century, this dependence has become a legal matter that has run the source nearly dry.  

More recently, areas such as the San Joaquin Valley in California have faced real danger regarding the health of aquifers and groundwater access that directly impact citizens and especially farmers in the area. Despite initiatives like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley could face a shortfall of water due to rationing of groundwater supply via subunits, per the act’s long-term approach. The San Joaquin Valley is known for its agricultural landscape that produces commodities amounting to nearly half of the state’s output, supports around 340,000 jobs, and generates $67 billion in revenues annually. There are many reasons this area, among others in the region, is susceptible to future water supply shortages. 

The U.S. Department of Interior announced on May 28, 2024 that they will be providing funds amounting to $179 million for four water recycling projects in Utah and California to keep up with demand in semiarid regions. This funding is part of the Interior Department’s Large Scale Water Recycling Program and provided by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. California received the largest cut of this investment from the Interior Department, taking in $159 million, or 88.8 percent of the total funding, for new recycling plants in arid regions.  

These initiatives have gained support from Governor Gavin Newsom (CA – D), who has aimed to reach 800,000 acre-feet of water recycled per year by 2030 and 1.8 million acre-feet by 2040 in his August of 2022 Water Supply Strategy. 

This popularized solution to the inevitable problem of limited water access leads back to the reuse of water through treatment facilities. This process has a long history, dating back to the Bronze Age with agriculture irrigation. A few challenges with water recycling include space, investments, efficiency, and the use of energy, however with new funding and possibly improved technology, the benefits outweigh these obstacles.  

Recycled water is commonly used for non-potable purposes such as agriculture, public parks, landscaping, and golf courses. The nutrients that linger from repurposed water support regenerative land for agriculture and other landscapes requiring maintenance, reducing the need for harmful fertilizers and thus minimizing water pollution. Regions prone to drought, for example in Southern California, are seeking to restrict reliance on freshwater sources, and in turn it is reported that a single water recycling plant could provide for up to 470,000 people each year. 

Investment in water recycling facilities has a growing list of benefits. Not only does recycled water promote regenerative agriculture, but it decreases wastewater as well as the divergence of water to sensitive ecosystems. Recycled water also has the potential to revive wetlands and promote colorful habitats for a multitude of organisms. Most relevant to the issue the San Joaquin Valley is facing, recycled water can be used to gradually restore groundwater supplies for farmers in the area.  

Furthermore, water processes use power from collection to distribution. Using recycled water for purposes that do not require extensive treatment can result in energy and cost savings. Water recycling plants benefit local areas through proximity to the population they serve, reducing the amount of energy used for distribution. It is important to maintain an adequate supply of water at a reasonable cost, especially for farmers. Water recycling is capable of both.  


Written by Tabetha Bowes, Public Policy Intern

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.