Five years ago, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stood on Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey, his back to the breaking waves, to announce ambitious plans to recycle 100% of the wastewater – the stuff that flows out of homes and workplaces from sinks, showers, laundries, and toilets – processed at the nearby Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant by 2035.

“It’s a service not just to L.A. but to all of the state, because we don’t have to pull water away from the rest of our state’s precious resources,” Garcetti said. He emphasized how the plan to completely overhaul the city’s biggest wastewater treatment facility would secure a reliable water source at a time when climate change seriously threatens California’s water supplies.  

Now, five years on, there hasn’t been much tangible movement. Garcetti is no longer the mayor and his vision for the Hyperion plant remains stuck in limbo, bogged down by major unanswered questions about how Hyperion’s recycled wastewater gets treated and distributed, unsecured funding for a massive project expected to cost tens of billions of dollars, and a lack of coordination between the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and LA Sanitation and Environment (LASAN).

 “I’m not only worried about meeting the current deadlines, I’m worried about the project,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of LA Waterkeeper, the regional chapter of a global network of organizations focused on preserving the world’s waterways. 

LA Waterkeeper commissioned a new report from UCLA, taking a close look at LA’s wastewater plans. With input from a group of independent technical experts, the report outlines a series of recommendations to hurry the process along, including establishing a structure for better “collaborative governance.”

Recycled wastewater currently makes up about 2% of LA City’s water supply. By some estimates, the Hyperion plant — which currently dumps most of its treated wastewater out to sea — has the potential to make up as much as half of the city’s entire water use.

The project delays call into question the city’s goal of sourcing 70% of its water locally by 2035. Indeed, possible revised timelines could see 100% wastewater recycling at Hyperion by as late as 2050 along a phased approach. Missing the city’s 2035 target, warn some experts, could mean water rationing when the next severe droughts hit California. 

“We were basically almost out of water at the end of the last drought, and it was just by luck or whatever you want to call it that we had two rainy years in a row,” said Lauren Ahkiam, climate campaign co-director for the LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), an economic, environmental, and racial justice advocacy organization. “In the future, we don’t want to just be counting on the luck of wet years coming just in time.” 

The amount of water the city takes from its various sources fluctuates every year. At the height of California’s last drought, the city imported nearly 90% of its water from the North of the state, the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and from the Colorado River. 

But these water sources — which in some cases have fed the city for over 100 years — are drying up as global warming continues to heat the West. 

Experts warn of lighter snow-packs in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains in the years ahead, meaning less run-off during the summer months to replenish rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater. Droughts are expected to get longer and harsher. As negotiations over Colorado River allocations continue, one certainty is that LA must rely on significantly less of this water in the future. 

This is why Garcetti and other city leaders have for decades looked at vastly increasing the amount of wastewater recycled at the Hyperion plant to help shore up LA’s water supplies. For that to happen, however, city heads and agency top brass at LASAN and the DWP must first agree upon important decisions about a sprawling, technically ambitious, and expensive engineering project that could take years to build out. These are decisions, some critics say, that should have been nailed down years ago.

“To be honest, I’m still confused about what the plan is big picture,” admitted Daniel McCurry, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California. 

Much of the wastewater currently recycled in California is treated, injected into underground aquifers, and then pulled out for treatment to drinking water quality standards. This is called “indirect potable reuse.” Last year, the state water board passed landmark rules on “direct potable reuse,” meaning wastewater cleaned to stringent drinking water standards can now go straight back into the municipal water system. The key difference in California between indirect and direct potable reuse, said McCurry, is an additional step in the treatment process called ozone-biological activated carbon (BAC). 

Among the key unanswered questions is just how much of Hyperion’s recycled wastewater should be first piped to groundwater basins throughout LA, how much is cleaned for direct potable reuse, and how much water is sent from Hyperion to other facilities like the LA Aqueduct Filtration Plant in Sylmar for that advanced treatment. The latter plan alone would require miles of new pipelines to be built across the city at great cost. A lot of energy would be required to pump the water uphill. The permitting process alone could take years. 

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is also pursuing its own massive wastewater recycling project, called “Pure Water,” which is much further along in development. Discussions around Hyperion’s future have also included potentially integrating both projects. This too would be a complex engineering feat, but experts point to long-term potential cost savings through economies of scale. 

Some progress has been made at Hyperion. In 2020, LASAN officially launched a near $20 million pilot project to decide which of three different membrane bioreactor (MBR) technologies would best suit Hyperion’s needs. MBR is a key step towards making treated wastewater drinkable. But critics say that city heads should be doing much more to ensure tough decisions are being made quicker.

“The problem here is that leadership needs to come from the mayor’s office and it needs to be incredibly strong,” said Mark Gold, director of water scarcity solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental advocacy group. At the same time, he welcomed LA Mayor Karen Bass’s office drafting in former State Water Resources Control Board chair, Felicia Marcus, to help shepherd the project along. 

In response to emailed questions about the project status, the reasons for the extended timelines, and about Bass’s role in moving the project forward, press secretary Clara Karger wrote that the mayor has been “working urgently” toward a greener LA “by building on the work of previous Mayors and delivering major investments to lead on climate.” 

Karger added how “the Mayor’s Office has directed LASAN and DWP to work closely together on a pathway to reach 100% recycled wastewater and will continue to coordinate with state and federal partners to realize this goal.”

Many of LA’s water watchers stress positive steps the city has taken in recent years to climate proof its infrastructure like capturing more stormwater and achieving record water conservation levels. 

The DWP and LASAN are also working on a project to upgrade the Donald C. Tillman Advanced Water Purification Facility in Van Nuys, though on a much smaller scale than that envisaged for the Hyperion plant. Once complete, the Tillman plant will have added capacity to put enough treated wastewater back into the system through groundwater replenishment to service 200,000 customers.

Publicly, agency heads have presented a unified front on the Hyperion project. “We are working closely together to find the best path forward,” said Martin Adams, DWP general manager and CEO, at a special meeting of the City Council’s committee on energy and the environment last November

But experts who have followed this project closely say that behind the scenes, friction over shared responsibility between DWP and LASAN is slowing progress. 

The two city agencies oversee two distinct parts of the city’s sprawling water infrastructure. LASAN is responsible for taking in and treating the city’s wastewater. LADWP is responsible for ensuring the water it distributes into people’s homes is fit for drinking. They even use different names for the project. The DWP calls it Operation NEXT. LASAN goes with Hyperion 2035

LA Waterkeeper’s new report finds the city’s water agencies have been “historically fragmented” and largely “left to their own devices with respect to water supply management.” One of the report’s key suggestions is to first unify the two agencies’ plans under a single name.

“It’s real and there’s a lot of reasons for it,” said Gold, of the tension between the agencies. Nor is it new, he added. “There have been internal turf wars since I started on water with the city way back in the late 80s.”

In response to detailed questions about the project status, both agencies maintained a united public-facing front. 

Calling Operation NEXT and Hyperion 2035 a “joint city initiative,” a DWP spokesperson wrote that the agency “remains committed to the goal of diversifying the city’s water supply portfolio by maximizing recycled water from LASAN’s Hyperion Reclamation Plant. LADWP, LASAN and the Mayor’s Office continue to be in close coordination on this effort.”

According to an LASAN spokesperson, the agency does indeed intend to consolidate the two separate plans. “Through this coordination, our departments will navigate the technical and regulatory hurdles that are required by an investment of this magnitude,” the spokesperson wrote. 

Both agencies are currently drafting separate reports on the project, which are scheduled to be issued later this year. 

“Even if we did have a clear plan on what to build and how to build it, there’s no clear plan on how to fund it,” said Tracy Quinn, president and CEO of Heal the Bay, a non-profit focused on protecting LA’s coastline and waterways. 

Because of all the swirling question marks hanging over the project, city officials have floated various cost estimates. One LASAN estimate pins a $16 billion price-tag to the project. Only a fraction of this money has already been secured, however. Large city and state budget deficits potentially throw a wrench into efforts to seal funding.  

Time is of the essence, water experts warn. “The longer it takes, the more expensive in real terms these projects get,” said Greg Pierce, director of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab and a co-author on the UCLA wastewater report.

“We know the next drought is around the corner, and we need to see an urgency from the city that we’re just not seeing,” said Reznik. “We just can’t afford to let up the momentum on this.” 

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