Municipal water managers are intensifying efforts to reduce urban water use and increase the reliability of local water supplies 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. Although 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. Here, 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 (P value ≤ 0.05). Our findings further highlight the need for policymakers to recognize the interdependencies and complexities within a water system.
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We thank S. Wasif for the preparation of Fig. 1; and S. Erysian from the California Department of Water Resources, C. Nagai and B. Coffey from the Metropolitan Water District, and C. Berch from Jurupa Community Services District for data guidance and input.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Schwabe, K., Nemati, M., Amin, R. et al. Unintended consequences of water conservation on the use of treated municipal wastewater. Nat Sustain 3, 628–635 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0529-2
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