Toilet to Tap?

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Did you know that we're almost three years into the Antonio Villaraigosa era in Los Angeles? I know, I know, it seems like longer. With all that has gone on.

This passage of time can only mean one thing. Within not too many months, the mayor will switch hats and become candidate Antonio again.

After all, it looks more and more doubtful that Hillary Clinton will be in a position to invite her campaign co-chair to help form a new administration in Washington.

So the Villaraigosa second-term effort will crank up soon. And this week it became clear that one of the images voters will be asked to embrace is Antonio as champion of the environment.

He took office in 2005 promising to be Mr. Green. He's pushed some initiatives such as planting a million trees and cleaning up the pollution from trucks at the port in San Pedro.

His newest pitch figures to be a bit more controversial with voters.

Villaraigosa wants us all to start using less of the water we import from upstate and the Colorado River. Which sounds like a safe, green, mom-and-apple-pie no-brainer.

But it comes with a huge price tag and actually represents a move to fundamentally shift LA's relationship with water.

The mayor wants us to assume a permanent drought mentality -- by increasing the fines for wasting water on driveways and lawns, hiring water police to enforce the rules, and forever barring restaurants from serving glasses of water unless requested.

He also would spend more than a billion dollars to build up the Department of Water and Power. And, for the first time, to get serious about collecting rainfall here and using it to replenish underground aquifers.

Now here's the controversial part. A lot of that money would go toward re-piping the city so that the water extracted from sewage at treatment plants would be reused rather than dumped in the ocean.

Some of the recycled water would irrigate parks and golf courses.

But Villaraigosa and the environmentalist who now runs the DWP, David Nahai, say it's also time for Los Angeles to drink recycled sewage water.

It's the only way, they say, that LA can provide water for a growing population, with the city's other sources drying up.

Treating and reusing sewage effluent is done in lots of places, they point out, including in Orange County.

But the last time Los Angeles toyed with the idea, public opinion killed it.

Everything was in place about a decade ago to start using treated effluent. Some would have been pumped down in the aquifers below the San Fernando Valley to mix with groundwater -- and to eventually be drawn back up.

In the tabloidese of headlines, it became “toilet to tap.” Karl Rove couldn't have come up with a more devastating slogan.

The issue became a pawn in the Valley secession movement. The Daily News, secession's unofficial campaign manager, whipped up sentiment by emphasizing that the suburbs would get the bad stuff while the Westside would get the good stuff.

Jim Hahn, the mayor at the time, killed the plan to help defeat secession.

Now recycling is back – but I think “toilet to tap” was used in every news story that ran this week. So it's going to be a tough sell.

An argument the mayor uses is that LA's water supply already includes treated sewage water. It arrives via aqueducts, heavily diluted by passing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in Northern California or by collecting in the giant reservoirs on the Colorado River…behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.

The mayor's plan includes $2.3 million – at least – for convincing Angelenos of the need to conserve and to start using the river of treated water we dump in the ocean.

That's a lot of money for PR, but in this case I think he's going to need all the help he can get.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.