Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Time to drink toilet water

I always enjoy a straight-talking commentary on indirect potable water recycling. I found a particularly good one in the Dallas Morning News over the weekend. Here it is...

It's time to drink toilet water
By Eilene Zimmerman
The Dallas Morning News
Sunday February 3, 2008.

Recycling sewage is safe and efficient, so why aren't we doing it? asks EILENE ZIMMERMAN

Officials in Orange County, Calif., last month opened the world's largest water-purification project, among the first "toilet-to-tap" systems in America.

The Groundwater Replenishment System is designed to take sewage water straight from bathrooms and – after an initial cleansing treatment – send it through $490 million worth of pipes, filters and tanks for purification. The water then flows into nearby lakes, where it seeps through clay, sand and rock into aquifers in the groundwater basin. Months later, it will travel back into the homes of half a million Orange County residents, through their kitchen taps and showerheads.

It's a smart idea, one of the most reliable and affordable hedges against water shortages, and it's not new. For decades, cities throughout the U.S. have used recycled wastewater for nonpotable needs, like agriculture and landscaping; because the technology already exists, the move to potable uses seems a no-brainer. But the Orange County project is the exception. Studies show that the public hasn't yet warmed to the notion of indirect potable reuse – or toilet-to-tap, as its opponents would have it. Surveys like one taken last year in San Diego show that a majority of us don't want to drink water that once had poop in it, even if it's been cleaned and purified. A public outcry against toilet-to-tap in 2000 forced the city of Los Angeles to shut down a $55 million project that would have provided enough water for 120,000 homes.

But many cities in the U.S. are in the midst of a severe water crisis. Rising populations and ongoing droughts mean we don't have enough water where we need it.

If we don't learn to deal with drinking toilet water, we're going to be mighty thirsty.

Only 2.5 percent of the water on Earth is freshwater, and less than 1 percent of that is usable and renewable. The Ogallala Aquifer – North America's largest, stretching from Texas to South Dakota – is steadily being depleted. And Americans are insatiable water consumers – our water footprint has been estimated to be twice the global average.

The ocean provides another source of potable water. Large-scale treatment of seawater already occurs in the Middle East, Africa and in Tampa Bay, Fla. Taking the salt out of ocean water sounds like a good idea, but it's economically and environmentally far more expensive than sewage-water recycling.

Orange County water officials estimate desalinated water costs between $800 and $2,000 per acre-foot to produce, while its recycled water runs about $525 per acre-foot. Desalination also uses more energy (and thus produces more greenhouse gas emissions), kills tiny marine organisms that get sucked up into the processing plant and produces a brine byproduct laced with chemicals that goes back into the ocean.

What desalination doesn't have, though, is the "yuck" factor of recycled sewage water. But seawater, like other sources of nonrecycled water, is at least as yucky as whatever comes through a toilet-to-tap program. When you know how dirty all this water is before treatment, recycling raw sewage doesn't seem like a bad option.

Hundreds of millions of tons of sewage are dumped into rivers and oceans, and in that waste are bacteria, hormones and pharmaceuticals. Runoff from rainwater, watering lawns and emptying pools is the worst, sending metals, pesticides and pathogens into lakes, rivers and the ocean. The water you find near the end of a river system like the Colorado or the Mississippi has been in and out of municipal sewers several times.

Whatever winds up in lakes and rivers used for drinking is cleaned and disinfected along with the rest of our water supply. Still, a recent analysis of San Diego's drinking water found several contaminants, including ibuprofen, the bug repellent DEET and the anti-anxiety drug meprobamate.

No treatment system will ever be 100 percent reliable, and skeptics who worry that pathogens in sewage water will make it past treatment and into our drinking water should worry about all drinking water, not just the water in a toilet-to-tap program.

The fact is, supertreated wastewater is clean enough to drink right after treatment. It's been used safely this way (in a process known as direct potable reuse) for years in the African nation of Namibia. The EPA has conducted research in Denver and San Diego on the safety of direct potable reuse and found that recycled water is often of better quality than existing drinking water.

And although putting water into the ground, rivers or lakes provides some additional filtering and more opportunities for monitoring quality, the benefits of doing it that way are largely psychological. In its 2004 report on the topic, the EPA concluded that Americans perceive this water to be "laundered" as it moves through the ground or other bodies of water, even though in some instances, according to the report, "quality may actually be degraded as it passes through the environment."

Despite the public's concerns, a few U.S. cities have already started to use recycled wastewater to augment drinking water. In El Paso, indirect potable reuse supplies 40 percent of the city's drinking water; in Fairfax, Va., it supplies 5 percent.

Unless we discover a new source of clean, potable water, we're going to have to consider projects like these to make wastewater a reusable resource. The upfront costs for getting a system in place and educating the public may be steep, but it would save us the expense – both economic and environmental – of finding another river or lake from which we can divert water.

Eilene Zimmerman is a San Diego-based journalist who writes about business and political and environmental issues.


Anonymous said...

Cr Manner's is going to be busy first going to India to distribute his great literary classic "Think before you agree to drink..." and then in the USA.

If he is not quick, these countries might take on this sensible approach of recycling, and then we will have nations of human-fish mutants...

DRINK 1, GIVE 10 said...

even worst, check this out...


Anonymous said...

this is bullshit. i'm not drinking poopy water for crying out loud.

Anonymous said...

Australia is one of the highest taxed countries in the world, yet, here we are in 2009, living in third world conditions with the Queensland health system in crises, hospitals are overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed with doctors and nursing staff leaving the State in droves because of poor working conditions and low wages and now with the forced introduction of toxic chemical diseased waste into the public drinking water supplies we can only expect an even bigger crises-- An epidemic. Disease and death will result from being forced to drink 'water' sourced from the sewer. Our already overburdened hospitals can't cope now. Queensland had one of the best health systems in the world and now it is without a doubt one of the worst since dumb and dumber ( Beattie and Bligh) took control of the state. We can't really expect anything better from this useless, arrogant, self serving labor mob. They are supposed to work in the best interest of the public, however they only work in the interests of big business. Politicians need to be reminded that they are servants of the people not their masters. We need to restore democracy to Australia from labor Government dictatorship.

Meredith Jayne

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