In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Harvesting Alternative Water Resources (US West)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Relevant Journals
  • Sewage Management History and Case Studies
  • Wastewater Recycling History
  • Public Perceptions and Acceptance of Recycled Wastewater
  • Recycled Wastewater Politics, Governance, and Regulation
  • Residential-Scale Wastewater Recycling (Greywater)
  • Capturing Stormwater
  • Residential-Scale Rainwater Harvesting
  • Ocean Desalination Prospects and Challenges
  • Ocean Desalination Case Study: San Diego

Ecology Harvesting Alternative Water Resources (US West)
Sayd Randle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0215


Since the mid-20th century, the western half of the United States has been known worldwide as a landscape marked by extraordinary water infrastructure. The semi-arid region’s enormous network of dams, reservoirs, and pipelines distributes its freshwater resources among an ever-growing population of residential, industrial, and agricultural users. Since the 1970s, however, growing environmental stresses and water demands have led many of the region’s water managers to look beyond the region’s rivers, lakes, and aquifers to expand the available supply. Wastewater and stormwater, substances previously approached as wastes or hazards in the region’s dominant management paradigms, are now increasingly understood as potential water resources. And saltwater, particularly the Pacific Ocean, is frequently cited as a potential solution to water supply stresses, particularly in densely populated coastal Southern California. The reassessment and exploitation of these waters entail regulatory, governance, political, infrastructural, and cultural challenges, as water managers and residents must rework the laws, institutions, and norms around these substances. Resistance to the new water sources has also arisen within the region, due to concerns about the safety, environmental impacts, and cost of their capture, cleaning, and distribution. This article draws on documents from a wide range of disciplines to explore the complicated (and at times, contentious) process of introducing these new supplies to the US West’s networks of water provision.

General Overviews

Widespread conditions of water stress and the large federal agency footprint in the field of water management in the western United States have helped keep the topic of alternative water sources on the agendas of several of the nation’s research agencies. National Research Council 2008 and National Research Council 2012 provide relatively up-to-date overviews of desalination and municipal-scale wastewater recycling technologies and uptake within National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2016 offers a comprehensive assessment of the potential for stormwater capture and home-scale wastewater recycling to contribute to the nation’s water supplies. While these overviews are all national in scope, they foreground projects in the western United States, largely due to the region’s status as a leader in implementing these water supply tactics. Cooley and Phurisamban 2016 is much more geographically focused, surveying only the California context, but it provides one of the few available comparisons of all of the alternative water sources detailed within this review.

  • Cooley, Heather, and Rapichan Phurisamban. 2016. The cost of alternative water supply and efficiency options in California. Oakland, CA: The Pacific Institute.

    Drawing on approaches from energy economics, this overview of the California context compares the costs of a range of alternative water supplies and efficiency improvements. Results suggest that demand reduction programs tend to cost less per unit than all of the alternative water supply options available, particularly when energy costs are considered within the calculations.

  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Using graywater and stormwater to enhance local water supplies: An assessment of risks, costs, and benefits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Review of stormwater capture and home-scale wastewater recycling as potential techniques to augment local water supplies in the United States. Focused on questions grouped into five central categories: quantity and suitability of these water sources, treatment and storage techniques, risks associated with use, costs and benefits of incorporating these sources into the supply mix, and implementation hurdles.

  • National Research Council. 2008. Desalination: A national perspective. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Most recent available assessment of desalination research, development, and adoption in the United States. Argues for the importance of adopting an integrated, strategic framework to guide desalination research at the federal level. Highlights the high degree of uncertainty around the environmental impacts of desalination projects, suggesting that these unknowns may stymie implementation in the near future.

  • National Research Council. 2012. Water reuse: Potential for expanding the nation’s water supply through reuse of municipal wastewater. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Overview of municipal wastewater reclamation policies and practices in the United States, with a focus on supply needs and treated wastewater’s potential to meet them, public health concerns, and barriers to adoption.

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