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Unintended Consequences of Water Conservation on the Use of Treated Municipal Wastewater

Nature Sustainability accepts a manuscript created by SPP Professors Kurt Schwabe and Mehdi Nemati, along with Refat Amin (MPP '18)

Municipal water managers are intensifying efforts to reduce urban water use and increase local water supply reliability to combat rising water scarcity and drought. Incentivizing increases in water use efficiency and mandating conservation are two strategies to rein in demand. Concurrently, local water supplies are being augmented through investments in reclaiming and treating municipal wastewater. While reducing urban water consumption is necessary to deal with population growth and a more variable climate, it does come at a cost. In particular, cutting back on indoor water consumption impacts the generation and quality of wastewater, which can have widespread and underappreciated consequences on human society and the environment. To quantify these impacts, we tracked monthly effluent flow, salinity levels, and the properties of 34 Wastewater Treatment Plants throughout Southern California from 2013 to 2017, a period that included extreme drought and abundant precipitation. Our analysis demonstrates that conservation measures significantly reduced effluent flow and increased effluent salinity. Our findings further highlight the need for policymakers to recognize the interdependencies and complexities within a water system.