Heal the Bay Teaches Beijing a Thing or Two

Kirsten James, Heal the Bay’s director of water quality, recently took a trip to China to discuss environmental issues with policymakers in the world’s most populous nation. Here she shares her reflections.

I’m back from China, and breathing a lot easier. I had a fabulous time, but the air pollution is brutal! Last month, the Beijing government invited me to speak to its Water Authority about water issues and regulation in California and share lessons to help inform the development of Beijing’s Water Action Plan.  My trip was a great learning experience, providing an up-close view of Chinese culture and how the nation goes about tackling environmental issues.

Addressing water supply and water quality is no small task for Beijing managers, given that they serve a population of more than 21 million residents. Officials I spoke with repeatedly pointed to population growth as their greatest environmental challenge.  As I described our work to benefit the city of Los Angeles and its 4 million residents, they nodded but said we are on a totally different playing field.  Nonetheless, they seemed keen to investigate how practices used to manage water in California could be introduced to Beijing, such as Total Maximum Daily Loads, other pollution limits and low impact development requirements.

In some respects, Beijing could be considered a step ahead of us in conservation. The city has had success implementing the use of grey water, water metering and price-tiering. Yet those programs might be attributed to an overly strong government hand and more lax public health regulations, which may not be a good thing.

My Chinese colleagues got a good chuckle when I mentioned that people in the greater L.A. region use 187 gallons of water per day on average.  One participant noted that he keeps a bucket of grey water from his sink/laundry to flush his toilet.  Beijing  has significant water recycling initiatives and is seriously exploring indirect potable reuse, so-called “toilet to tap” technologies. Beijing has definitely taken notice of Orange County’s cutting-edge efforts to cleanse wastewater and turn it into drinking water.

My biggest takeaway was seeing how the Chinese government has such a strong role in both hindering and encouraging environmental progress.  For example, if the government owns much of the industry and business, are officials going to make themselves the “responsible party” for cleaning up a groundwater contamination issue or an industrial spill?  However, if the government determines that a new subway line needs to go in within the year and that people shouldn’t drive a certain day of the week to help reduce air pollution, this can be done overnight (no CEQA in China)!

Local municipalities, residents, businesses and public policy advocates in Southern California struggle with the number of agencies dealing with water management. It can be hard to gain consensus and move forward when there are so many silos (e.g., the DWP, MWD and L.A. County Public Works).  Beijing had a similar problem, with 70 different agencies working on water issues.  So in 2004, the government decided the competing unit would all unify into one agency. Voila!

I learned a lot in Beijing to broaden my perspective on water management and hopefully I provided some tools that can help officials there develop and implement a robust water plan.  However, it’s good to be home, drinking clean water from the tap and enjoying a clear blue sky.