We recently discussed the practice of recycling and treating sewage water to use as drinking water – a process that produces clean, purified water but also induces queasiness among much of the public. With the impact that our water consumption has on drought conditions and ecosystems across the country, it may be time to more resourcefully salvage our water – even water that was once in our toilets.
What may come as a surprise to many is that recycling sewage water is already done throughout the country. Its potential for drinking is an extension of a well-established practice of using treated sewage water for industrial uses, agricultural irrigation, and landscaping irrigation for parks and golf courses, which began in Los Angeles in 1929. Today, wastewater recycling is most common in areas experiencing severe water shortages where the gravity of the situation pushes for unconventional approaches.
Here are some examples of states successfully treating wastewater for their drinking supply or are trying to get their foot in the door.
With severe drought conditions that have lasted almost steadily for the past four years, Texas is in the midst of a water crisis that has prompted strict usage regulation. The city of Wichita Falls has responded to the extreme water limitations by initiating a wastewater recycling system to supply 50 percent of the city’s drinking water. The project has received a lot of “not in my backyard” reactions from repulsed residents, which in fact derailed an original attempt in the early 2000s. This time around, Wichita Falls is implementing a public education campaign to assuage people’s concerns. A few other Texas cities are beginning to follow suit.
California has a history of campaigning for wastewater to drinking water and, like Texas, they have been met largely with public resistance. Recently however, water bans in response to the state’s worst drought yet have changed the conversation. Orange County in particular has turned wastewater treatment into a huge success, having begun operations in 2008 and now providing nearly 70 million gallons of purified water each day. The project is the largest of its kind in the world and expected to only get bigger; efforts are underway to expand daily water output to 100 million gallons. Silicon Valley is hopping on the bandwagon as well.
Especially in the southeastern part of the country, Florida is experiencing drought but with different consequences than out West. Florida’s deepening water table, coupled with rising sea levels, makes to the infiltration of saltwater – not to mention sink holes. Since most wastewater treatment facilities inject clean water into aquifers (more for the public’s peace of mind than out of necessity), South Florida is proposing such a strategy for curtailing water depletion. The project will provide drinking water for cities that include Miami, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach.
Virginia could be considered a veteran in wastewater recycling for potable use. The Occoquan Sewage Authority has been cleaning wastewater and releasing it into Fairfax County’s reservoir since 1978. The operation accounts for only five percent of the county’s drinking water, but the quality of the reservoir’s water has greatly improved as a result because the recycled water is in a better condition than the water that flows in from the stream.
These states are not the only ones involved in the wastewater recycling arena; Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Georgia, and Maryland are other players with practices in place or awaiting approval. Time will tell whether these states lead the way in making such practices the norm countrywide.