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Amid climate change, water managers see promise in recycled wastewater

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Las Vegas is prepared to pay Southern California $750 million to drink water that's been recycled from sewage. Why? Well, because of the ongoing megadrought in the Southwest. Alex Hager with member station KUNC reports.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Millions of Californians have already been using recycled wastewater for years for things like watering lawns, taking showers and, yes, drinking. It comes from facilities like this one near LA, where a complicated setup of pipes and pumps is pulling water from the sewage treatment plant next door and making it ready to drink. Rupam Soni, with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is showing me around.

RUPAM SONI: So now this water looks like what you expect water to look like. It's really clean and pure after this point.

HAGER: Water re-use can feel like an odd proposition, especially when you consider where it was used before.

The water that's flowing in here is coming from flushed toilets and kitchen sinks and shower drains?

SONI: Exactly.

HAGER: There are plans to expand this small demonstration plant to produce 300 times the water it makes now. That'll cost more than $3 billion and more than 100 million to operate each year. But the Colorado River is drying up, so water managers are scrambling to boost supplies. Soni says this is a way to help keep taps flowing for about 19 million people.

SONI: Yeah. It's super exciting. It is going to make a substantial change. It is going to provide a new supply.

HAGER: And Southern California isn't going to foot the whole bill. People further upstream are going to help with that. David Johnson is with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area.

DAVID JOHNSON: I think it's really a perfect solution for Southern California. And I think it's a perfect opportunity for us to be able to partner, too, and demonstrate that partnership in a tangible way.

HAGER: While this whole region needs to cut back on water use, negotiations between the states for how to do that have been unproductive. There's been lots of finger-pointing and little compromise. So this collaborative energy stands out. The deal will work like this. Johnson's agency in Nevada is ready to put up $750 million to help pay for this recycling project in Southern California, a facility that their customers will never use. But when Los Angeles is flush with more potable water, it won't have to drawdown Colorado River reservoirs, like Lake Mead. And that conserved water will be freed up for all the people in Las Vegas.

JOHNSON: We would be able to actually not have to build any of that transportation infrastructure to be able to get water from one location to another. So it just makes a lot of sense to us.

HAGER: But that trade isn't cheap. Recycled water costs about twice as much as current supplies. Felicia Marcus says it's worth it.

FELICIA MARCUS: There's not a lot of a con other than it's expensive. But it's a smart investment. I mean, my view is that it'll be priceless in the future.

HAGER: Marcus has chaired California's water control board and the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. She says it makes sense that agencies in Nevada and Arizona are already putting millions toward securing a supply for the future.

MARCUS: The reality we're in now won't exist under climate change. So we have to look at, what's the economic cost of not having that water?

HAGER: The Southwest is dry. And climate scientists say it's getting drier. Temperatures are rising. Snow is melting faster. And flows in western rivers and streams are projected to drop another 10 to 20% by the middle of this century. Water recycling won't solve the region's inability to meet demand. But it'll be one way to help keep water flowing, as there's less and less to go around.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager in Carson, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "LIKE HONEY FROM THE BRANCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hager