mm465: Toilet to tap — coming soon to a glass near you?

toilettotap

MUDGE’s Musings

Water shortages are a growing fact of life in many parts of the U.S. It’s a source of growing friction between states, as noted earlier this year here.

The answer for those parched yet populous regions of the country, especially in the desert West, has often taken the form of routing fresh water from formerly underused sources, such as the Colorado River.

Lately, though, whether an artifact of cyclical climate change, or as a result of permanent crisis, such remote resources are becoming scarce, and ever more hotly fought over.

So, rather than dumping its sewage, Orange County, south of Los Angeles in Southern California, has taken the radical step for this part of the world to seriously recycle its water, for reuse in every way. We have noted this water filtration initiative previously in this space.

The technicians call the process “indirect potable reuse.”

Don’t you just love euphemisms?

Let’s call it what it is, shall we? Toilet to tap.

nytimes

A Tall, Cool Drink of … Sewage?

By ELIZABETH ROYTE | Published: August 8, 2008

Before I left New York for California, where I planned to visit a water-recycling plant, I mopped my kitchen floor. Afterward, I emptied the bucket of dirty water into the toilet and watched as the foamy mess swirled away. This was one of life’s more mundane moments, to be sure. But with water infrastructure on my mind, I took an extra moment to contemplate my water’s journey through city pipes to the wastewater-treatment plant, which separates solids and dumps the disinfected liquids into the ocean.

A day after mopping, I gazed balefully at my hotel toilet in Santa Ana, Calif., and contemplated an entirely new cycle. When you flush in Santa Ana, the waste makes its way to the sewage-treatment plant nearby in Fountain Valley, then sluices not to the ocean but to a plant that superfilters the liquid until it is cleaner than rainwater. The “new” water is then pumped 13 miles north and discharged into a small lake, where it percolates into the earth. Local utilities pump water from this aquifer and deliver it to the sinks and showers of 2.3 million customers. It is now drinking water. If you like the idea, you call it indirect potable reuse. If the idea revolts you, you call it toilet to tap.

Opened in January, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System is the largest of its type in the world. It cost $480 million to build, will cost $29 million a year to run and took more than a decade to get off the ground. The stumbling block was psychological, not architectural. An aversion to feces is nearly universal, and as critics of the process are keen to point out, getting sewage out of drinking water was one of the most important public health advances of the last 150 years.

Not everyone has jumped aboard the TtoT bandwagon.

The process isn’t risk-free. Some scientists are concerned that dangerous compounds or undetectable viruses will escape the multiple physical and chemical filters at the plant. And others suggest that the potential for human error or mechanical failure — clogged filters or torn membranes that let pathogens through, for example — is too great to risk something as basic to public health as drinking water.

Recycled water should be used only as nondrinking water, says Philip Singer, the Daniel Okun Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina. “It may contain trace amounts of contaminants. Reverse osmosis and UV disinfection are very good, but there are still uncertainties.”

And then there are those whose first, and final, reaction is “yuck.”

Story is from the NYTimes Magazine, thus, long form, but it’s definitely worth the read.

A Tall, Cool Drink of … Sewage? – NYTimes.com

As the environmentalists have always enjoyed reminding us, Planet Earth is a closed system, so we’ve always recycled our water.

Of course, it’s only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve figured out such toxic ways of polluting our water, and in such a massive scale.

It’s time to face the music, and do what the planet can no longer do on its own, clean our used water through its natural filtration processes.

You might guess that perhaps, like many of our recent resource shortages, it might be about substitution. After all, we found out how to harness atomic fission to replace coal (not in short supply, but for many years a filthy, socially undesirable fuel) for generating electricity, only to founder over some localized sloppy maintenance practices that set that program back 30 years or more.

So now, we’re looking at newer substitutes, such as solar power, or wind turbines, to supply our voracious appetite for electricity.

And we keep searching for a substitute (ethanol? hydrogen? lithium ion batteries) for the gasoline that powers our personal automobiles. We may find it.

But water? Don’t think that we’re ever going to find a substitute for water. (And no, guys, beer doesn’t count. After all, need I remind you that beer, and every other alcoholic beverage, is mainly water?)

So, we’d better learn how to really, really, really scrub the feces out of our sewage.

And then we’d better learn how to really, really, really like the cool, clear glass of indirect potable reuse that we’ll all use to quench our thirsts.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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