Recycled Drinking Water from Sewage

Glass of Fresh Recycled drinking water

Getting Past the Yuck Factor

You can’t drink the Pacific Ocean. Or cook with it. Or irrigate with it. Or use it for twenty zillion and one (at least) other purposes that require fresh water. There’s lots’a water out there, but it’s not fresh.

You can take the salt out of it and make it fresh, but that requires an awful lot of energy. And that’s another thing California doesn’t have enough of.

What’s the answer?

Water spilled out of a spigot, sparklingly clear, into a plastic cup. Just 45 minutes earlier, it was effluent, piped over from Orange County’s wastewater treatment plant next door. At a specialized plant, it then went through several stages of purification that left it cleaner than anything that flows out of a home faucet or comes in a brand-name bottle.

New York Times

Fountain Valley, CA, a city of 55,313 (2010 Census) in Orange County, has found a way to cope with the crippling drought and the mandatory water restrictions imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month. It’s the same solution San Diego and Los Angeles tried to use in the 1990s, but this may be the time to make it work. It’s recycled drinking water.

Before, people called the system “toilet to tap” and refused to drink the water. Los Angeles spent $55 million on such a plant, and then had to use the water for irrigation because people refuse to drink it.

Orange County persuaded people to drink recycled water beginning in 2008. However, they don’t run their purified water directly into homes. They put it underground to replenish the area’s aquifers and to be diluted by the natural water supply. This seems to provide an emotional buffer for consumers.

Recycled drinking water requires a lot of filtering

The process begins as suspended solids, bacteria, protozoa, and anything else larger than 0.2 microns are filtered out. Then the water is forced through semi-permeable membranes in a process called reverse osmosis to remove chemicals, tastes, and odors. Then a zap of powerful ultraviolet light and a little hydrogen peroxide disinfect it further and neutralize other chemicals, until it is safer and purer than the water from your tap or your favorite bottled water.

Los Angeles and San Diego are getting ready to try it again. ”The difference between this and 2000 is everyone wants this to happen,” said Marty Adams, who heads the water system for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The Santa Clara Valley Water District hopes to meet at least 10 percent of its water demands by 2022 with recycled water.

The inevitable squeamishness over drinking water that was recently waste ignores a fundamental fact, according to George Tchobanoglous, an expert in water reuse and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis: “When it comes down to it, water is water,” he said. “Everyone who lives downstream on a river is drinking recycled water.”

But after all that, 13 percent of adult Americans say they would absolutely refuse to even try recycled water, according to a recent study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. “A small minority of people are very offended by this, and can slow it down or stop it because of legal and political forces,” said Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies revulsion, and a co-author of the study.

Enticing people to drink recycled water, however, requires getting past what experts call the “yuck” factor. Efforts in the 1990s to develop water reuse in San Diego and Los Angeles were beaten back by activists who denounced what they called, devastatingly,

Water recycling is common for uses like irrigation; purple pipes in many California towns deliver water to golf courses, zoos and farms. The West Basin Municipal Water District, which serves 17 cities in southwestern Los Angeles County, produces five types of “designer” water for such uses as irrigation and in cooling towers and boilers. At a more grass-roots level, activists encourage Californians to save “gray water” from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines to water their plants and gardens.

Research has shown that highlighting the benefits of recycled water — and the need — can shift emotions and help diminish the sense of risk. “Under crisis, people accept things that they wouldn’t accept otherwise,” Dr. Rozin noted.

Wichita Falls and Big Spring, Tex., have put purified water directly into the drinking supply without incident for years.

For the ultimate in recycled water, there is one place to go: the International Space Station. Aboard the space station, equipment captures liquid from the onboard toilets and even the moisture from breath and sweat.

Col. Douglas H. Wheelock, who served as commander of the station in 2010, said, “I drank it for six months, and it was actually quite tasty.” That did not keep his colleagues from making light of the situation, however.

“We had a running joke on the station,” he said. “Yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”

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