Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Treated water ready for prime time?

Is recycled water past its "image problem"?

California and other parts of the world are coming to grips with a reality about water: Fresh supplies are available through recycling.

As parts of the United States deal with drought and billions of people around the world deal with access to fresh water, recycling is quickly becoming a critical solution.

Two major reports out this week should do wonders to put aside fears when taking water from sewage treatment plants and scrubbing it clean enough it to a point that we can drink it.

As covered in the Los Angeles Times, a National Research Council report said reclaimed water is as safe as conventional sources and greater use should be encouraged.

Meanwhile, engineers at Brown University reported on a new process that can remove heavy metals from water.

For now, various rules and regulations generally prohibit agencies from directly sending into our water pipes the very clean H2O that originated from a sewage treatment plant and was then scrubbed at a water recycling facility.

Today, this treated water can only be used for irrigation, injected underground (where Mother Nature is presumed to have a better handle on "scrubbing" this water), used for industrial purposes (companies want this highly treated water because of its nearly mineral-free quality) or other "non-potable" uses.

What's holding us back from sending this water into our households?

Perhaps it is fear. "Toilet to tap" is still an obstacle some water agencies face. This phrase, coined by a (failed) candidate for public office in Los Angeles, is one of the biggest public relations challenges when it comes to broad acceptance of recycled water. As PR pros well know, a negative label can stick much better than a positive and is hard to unwind.

Science tells us recycled water is safe. While new research and improved treatment technologies continues to help, PR pros have spent consider effort to erase perception and fear when it comes to reclaimed water.

When I speak about this topic, I remind people that (a) we are all drinking dinosaur pee and (b) the astronauts in the International Space Station are recycling 97 percent of their urine and perspiration for drinking water. The first part is silly, I know. But the second is meant to demonstrate that the science and technology are "here" to safely and effectively drink recycled water.

At a recent tour of the water recycling facility operated by the West Basin Municipal Water District (an update of a tour I took about 10 years ago), I drank recycled water. It tasted great. I'm still standing.

The journey to my lips began a few miles away at the massive Hyperion wastewater treatment plant where this water receives its first rounds of cleansing. Once at the West Basin facility, the water is squeezed through filters and membranes, then treated with an ultraviolet process. This final stage kills bacteria and viruses, rendering the water actually cleaner than what is being sent to many U.S. households.

The "UV" stage was added since my last tour and is the "killer app" for recycled water. It takes away the last imagined fear for the public - viruses. Less complicated UV systems are being constructed for use in undeveloped areas of the world, where fresh water is a much bigger issue.

In California, health officials will likely require more steps before agencies like West Basin can connect the "outflow" pipes from water recycling facilities to the pipes that send water to our homes. One likely step will be a 24/7, real-time monitoring (with online readouts) of this water as it is about to enter the drinking water system.

And you wonder why our water bills are going up.

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