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Drought forces Los Angeles to unveil water plan

Faced with drought and a jump in consumption, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called for cleansing sewage for drinking water and imposing watering restrictions.
California Agriculture Faces Challenges As Drought Continues
The Los Angeles Aqueduct, seen here on May 9 near Lone Pine, carries water from the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains, which hold less snow than normal, to major urban areas of Southern California. David McNew / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Faced with drought and a jump in consumption, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called for cleansing sewage for drinking water and imposing restrictions for watering lawns and washing driveways.

The mayor, who once opposed wastewater recycling as unsafe, unveiled a sweeping water plan Thursday that could cost up to $2 billion over 20 years. It comes as Los Angeles tries to meet a projected 15 percent increase in water demand by 2030.

"For over 250 years, through dry and wet seasons, we've grown from 44 settlers to 4 million people and every time we needed water, our approach was the same — we pitched another straw in the ground, we marched up to the mountains, to the aqueducts in distant areas and opened up our wallets," Villaraigosa said.

The plan includes adding treated wastewater to drinking supplies. The city constructed a system to do that in the 1990s, but abandoned it amid criticism.

"This is a new day," said David Nahai, the city's director of water and power. "We have new technology."

Some homeowners oppose the notion of treated wastewater for drinking, calling it a "toilet to tap" approach, but Nahai said the notion that sewage will not be cleansed first is unfair.

"There is nothing to fear. We should not be deterred by demagoguery or ignorance. We should not allow ourselves to fall prey to catchy, facile phrases," he said.

The plan calls for a 600 percent increase in recycled water use. If the City Council approves it, Los Angeles would join other cities taking the approach, including Orange County's $481 million plant that opened in January.

The mayor's plan also calls for water restrictions on washing driveways and sidewalks and watering lawns at midday.

Villaraigosa plans to leave rates steady and pay for his plan through existing grants and the city water and power budget. Another $500 million to $1 billion would be needed to clean up the contaminated water supply beneath the San Fernando Valley. The mayor's office said that could be funded through suing commercial polluters.