All of us in the “Water Community” hold these truths to be self-evident:
1) reclaiming and reusing wastewater makes environmental and economic sense when done safely,
2) such resource recovery efforts fall flat without sufficient public support,and
3) the “yuck factor” has to be tackled with good science, strategy, and patience.
An important new study will help boost the wastewater reuse movement and weaken the Yuck! Not-In-My-Water syndrome. In January 2012, the National Academy of Sciences’ Water Science and Technology Board issued “Water Reuse: Potential for Expanding the Nation’s Water Supply Through Reuse of Municipal Wastewater” www.nas.edu (Note: I serve on the Board but was not involved in writing or reviewing the report, although I offered EPA support for the study several years ago when it was first under consideration and I was EPA Assistant Administrator for Water.)
The NAS study analyzes the scientific, technical, legal, cultural, and psychological barriers and risks. It builds the case for more reuse, analyzing real versus perceived health risks, and growing problems with water scarcity in some regions. It claims advanced treatment and reuse of wastewater can boost water supplies of coastal cities by as much as 27%. Along the way, it interjects some phrases worth noting and understanding– such as “sewage farming” (which still occurs abundantly in Mexico City) and “de facto” or unplanned reuse.
As one might expect, and hope, it’s getting significant attention from the media world. Not all of the 125-plus “hits” are as comprehensive and thoughtful as the Felicity Barringer story in the New York Times (2-10-12), but most are getting the basic gist correctly and that’s a good thing. Citizens will learn more about some of the great feats occurring around the country, such as in Orange County California (with its world-renown ground water replenishment system that currently treats 70 million gallons of wastewater per day but will grow to 100 mgd); the West Basin Municipal Water District, L.A. County; Southern California’s Water Replenishment District; San Diego; El Paso, Texas; Scottsdale, Arizona; and beyond.
Readers of the report will also get a clearer picture about other types of recycling and beneficial uses, existing efforts, future trends, and major players. For example, the WateReuse Association, www.wateruse.org, has been around since 2000, successfully promoting the effort on a national scale. States like California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona have done some of the most recycling work but others are gaining steam, which is all good news at a time when population, climate, and other stressors put a squeeze on existing supplies.
According to the California Recycled Water Task Force and California’s Local Government Commission, the state has the potential to recycle enough to meet 30-50% of household water needs of the state’s projected growth. California has more than 300 water recycling plants operating, with 4,800 sites using recycled water as of 2004. 46% of the water is used for agricultural irrigation, 21% for landscape irrigation, 14% for groundwater recharge, and 19%for all other uses. www.lgc.org
One aspect of the NAS report that hasn’t received much attention yet, but is destined to prompt lively debate: Should EPA issue national regulatory standards for wastewater reuse given the lack of consistency or attention among most states? The report lays out a range of thoughtful pro’s and con’s for and against such federal action. It points out various gaps in the current federal regulatory and statutory framework, such as the reuse gap between the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. It mentions the potential for uniform standards that could propel the movement in states and better protect public health in the future but also the costs and unintended consequences of federal actions that compromise or complicate existing state efforts.
It’s a discussion worth having. If done well, Federal leadership on practices, strategies, and health-based guidelines can help states, tribes, cities, academia, and the private sector launch more innovative technologies and management measures. Even if the decision is not to legislate in the zone between the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act anytime soon or to have EPA issue regulations on wastewater reuse, there are a lot of actions Federal agencies, such as EPA, Interior, and Agriculture can take to keep making scientific and environmental progress. One obvious step, which EPA supports, is to update its useful, and entirely voluntary, 2004 guidelines on best practices for beneficial reuse.
The road to recovery is paved with good inventions… and supportive public attitudes. Innovative technologies are making reuse of wastewater (as well as desalination of marine and inland brackish water) more affordable and attainable. The key is to probe the science and communicate the risks and benefits so that a squeamish or skeptical public can make informed choices as water scarcity and economic stress loom larger. When they do, I’m betting the public will increasingly choose to drink the purified water that was once the waste stream of communities and the pee of dinosaurs.