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Unintended consequences of water conservation on the use of treated municipal wastewater


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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Fig. 1: Practical examples of water conservation in municipalities.
Fig. 2: The locations of the sample WWTPs and corresponding water agency flow reductions.
Fig. 3: The monthly relationship between changes in effluent flow, GPCD and TDS.
Fig. 4: Analysis of the relationship between conservation policies and changes in effluent flow and TDS.
Fig. 5: Analysis of the relationship between conservation policies and changes in effluent TDS with and without controlling for the salinity levels for the source water.

Data availability

All data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding authors on request.


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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.

Author information




K.S., M.N. and D.J. designed research. K.S., M.N., R.A. and Q.T. performed research. K.S., M.N., R.A., Q.T. and D.J. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kurt Schwabe.

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Supplementary Tables 1–6.

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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).

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