Not Recycled Water? Yuck!
by John D. Sullivan, LWVC Water Consultant
People often joke about water consumed today having once been in Alexander the Great's latrine. The joke does have a point: water is a flow resource that moves through the air, over the surface of the earth and underneath the earth as ground water. As it moves on the surface and beneath the earth, it is often cleaned of various impurities. Nonetheless, there is still a considerable "yuck" factor when people discuss the issue of recycled water. (See High Country News, September 17, 2007 at http://www.hcn.org/servlets/
The way that water flows and cleans itself on the surface and beneath the earth is important. As people in the state of California, and elsewhere in the country, cope both with the current drought and the increased demand for water, it will become increasingly important to consider using more recycled water. Soon, it will be come vital for us to accept that our water supply can be augmented by making use of sewer water that is currently flushed to the ocean, where it comes back to us as part of the hydrological cycle.
Treated sewer water is currently reused in parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties for the irrigation of industrial parks and golf courses. Some treated sewer water is returned to ground water aquifers where it ultimately is withdrawn for human consumption. Of course, it is retreated both by passing through layers of earth and by treatment plants that prepare water for distribution to homes and businesses.
As California considers additional use of recycled water, it is important to focus on the quality of that water and on the emergence of new contaminants, particularly endocrine disrupters. On the quality issue, it is important that sewer water be treated to the highest degree possible before it is returned to the water environment.
On the endocrine disruptor issue, it is important to realize that our bodies do not utilize every molecule of the drugs that we take and we eject the residue back into the environment. There is some evidence that these endocrine disruptors are causing problems for fish and could cause problems for humans. So any policy on increasing our use of recycled water would have to take such contaminants into account.
It is also important to remember that the sources for some of our water (the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River) already receive output from sewer treatment plants. Of course, such treated water flows some distance through natural and constructed channels and is treated again before it is distributed for human consumption.
There have been both chemical and epidemiological studies done on treated, recycled water (National Research Council, Issues In Potable Reuse at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=602 2#toc). The general conclusion is that research to date does not suggest there is any danger in the consumption of such water but that there is considerable need for further research.
The State Water Resources Control Board has issued a draft policy for a statewide Water Recycling Policy to establish more uniform requirements for recycled water projects (http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_recycling_poli cy/index.html). The adoption of such a policy will lead to an increased use of treated water to augment existing supplies. As the state copes both with drought and with population growth, it will be important to pay close attention to these quality issues and to deal with the "yuck" factor.