3 Sustainable Clean Water Ideas for a Warming World

Climate Change Brings New Innovation to the Water Environment

The summer of 2018 saw devastating fires blazing all over the world. Nearly 100 people died in raging fires across the southern coast of Greece. More than 50 wildfires scorched Sweden where the temperature north of the Arctic Circle soared into the 90’s causing drought conditions. Record breaking temperatures across the globe from Montreal to Great Britain topped 98 degrees this summer.  In Japan, 22,000 people were hospitalized when temps climbed to 106 degrees. And, in normally cool Oslo, the thermometer climbed to 86 degrees for 16 consecutive days. From Southern California and Arizona to India and Pakistan, withering heat reached a deadly 110 degrees that parched the environment.

ThermometerThe most alarming news is the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded reached 124.3 degrees in Algeria this July.

Fires, heat and drought of this scope and scale seem to be becoming the new normal. These extreme events point to a planet that is warming and perhaps faster than scientists have predicted.

Although the effects of climate change may vary widely in different geographic regions, those areas already hardest hit with drought and arid conditions may be in the most critical need of clean drinking water.

This crisis will only get worse as the earth’s population conceivably could grow exponentially in the next 50 years and adequate supplies of water become even more scarce. In addition to supplying all these thirsty people with clean water, the chilling paradox is the increased demand on already-scarce resources means there is a greater chance that existing water sources will become polluted by human waste, industrial toxins, and contaminated agricultural runoff.

It is human nature to postpone change and sacrifice as long as possible. But it is clear that public service announcements warning residents to save water, take shorter showers, plant resilient gardens, and conserve, is not going to be enough to help avoid a global water shortage.  Fortunately, scientists and researchers are working diligently to solve some very complex problems to provide innovative and sustainable clean water solutions for the future.

Here are three cutting edge ideas for sustainable water supplies that just may help a warming world.

Ancient Bacteria for Modern Water Purification

Anaerobic or oxygen-averse bacteria to treat wastewater is back in vogue… after a billion years. When the earth was a toxic primordial goo, anaerobic bacteria thrived in the oxygen deprived world forming the first signs of life.  Environmental engineers at Stamford University are now bringing back these ancient microorganisms as a more cost-effective wastewater treatment process.

Primordial-bacteriaWastewater treatment plants that use aerobic bacteria must provide oxygen with huge and costly electrically powered blowers for these microorganisms to survive. Anaerobic bacteria treatment processes do not need oxygen and use considerably less energy, making the wastewater treatment process more economical to operate. In addition to saving money, engineers believe these anaerobes can filter household and industrial chemicals better than conventional treatment plants.

Full-scale plants utilizing anaerobic bacteria may soon be capable of processing millions of gallons of wastewater per day into refreshing clean water.

Mega Scale Desalination

Desalination plants may not have been around as long as ancient bacteria, but this technology is not a new concept either.  What is news however, is the increasing role desalination will have in the future. Israel’s Sorek desalination plant is the largest seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant in the world providing 627,000 cubic meters per day (m3/d) or the equivalent to about 166,000,000 gallons of water per day (gpd) to Israelis.

Shawaikh Reverse Osmosis (RO) desalination plant in Saudi Arabia.

Desalination plants which were notoriously expensive energy hogs have become less energy-intensive as technologies have improved. Using renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal along with advanced technologies including thin-film nanocomposite membranes, captive deionization (most suitable for brackish water), forward osmosis, and metal–organic framework (MOF) biological cell membranes that requires very little water pressure, water desalination is becoming more efficient and cost effective. The new cutting-edge membranes can even filter out precious metals such as lithium used in batteries.

Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of desalinated water in the world with its 32 desalination plants and growing, will soon be producing a historic 5 million m3/d or the equivalent of about 1,321,000,000 gpd, a global record of desalinated water. Benefiting from this leading-edge technology, Cape Town South Africa may have averted a catastrophic “Day Zero” when the City’s first desalination plant went online, preventing a water doomsday for its residents.With the world’s oceans holding about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water and with more innovation, desalination may prove to be this thirsty world’s salvation.


Drinking Water from the Air

Another old idea that is gaining favor is converting fog into drinking water. Super-sized moisture collection systems could allow people living in coastal or mountainous areas to convert fog into safe drinking water. Collection traps are made from a 3D mesh that can withstand high wind speeds, while still retaining and accumulating water in storage tanks. With a variety of sizes available, these fog systems can be used for individual needs or supplying water for entire villages.

Super-sized fog nets can capture moisture in coastal or mountainous areas to convert fog into safe drinking water.

Combine this idea with giant Atmosphere Water Generators (AWG), which takes moisture or humidity directly out of the air and converts it into potable water.  Even in the driest of lands, the air is loaded with water molecules and enough drinking water converted from AWG’s could provide communities with a continuous and sustainable source of clean water.

On a large scale, the AWG units can be mounted on the roof-tops of commercial or residential buildings.  When powered by renewable energy, these systems can create safe local drinking water efficiently and economically. Water districts and municipalities managing these units, can provide as much as 55 m3 /d or about 14,500 gallons per day, enough to service each building independently with water.

AWG Towers
Large scale Atmosphere Water Generators can be installed on roof tops.

Collected water from both fog collection systems or AWG’s may seem farfetched. But consider this, 80 percent of California’s water goes to irrigate farms and the other 20 percent of water use goes to urban use. Collected water from the air could be used to irrigate crops or other commercial watering needs.

Water conservation and alternative technologies such as fog collection systems and AWG units can supplement our increasing demand for clean water and these ideas just might may make a difference.


The Future is for Innovation

Combating climate change and managing our depleting water resources is a reality we can’t ignore. The devasting fires, drought and heat from 2018, is a reminder that our actions today may help avert a global catastrophe in the future. These innovative ideas and others still in development are one step forward to a more sustainable world.

Our future depends on it!

Drinking Water That is Out of This World

Reclaiming Wastewater on the Space Station has an impact right here on Earth!

Water—it’s essential for all living beings… and water is essential to make life possible.   It’s an interesting paradox that has kept scientists searching for life in extreme places.

Outer spaceWhen NASA recently announced the discovery of liquid water flowing under an ice cap on Mars, it opened the exciting possibility that life may exist outside our earthly abode.  While it is conceivable scientists may eventually discover life somewhere in our galaxy, a reliable source of water outside earth is fundamental for the possibility of establishing a colony on Mars, exploring the universe and even visiting distant planets in search of life outside earth.

This is the stuff of science fiction…or is it?

Well, let’s get the stars out of our eyes and return to earth.  First, we need to get to Mars and therein lies the challenge. Top on the list is how to provide the essentials for life, such as water, air and the entire habitat for the astronauts to live in as they journey among the stars.

Getting to Space

Establishing a sustainable long-term flight program requires a base to launch manned operations in space. The International Space Station (ISS), which was put into orbit in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2000, currently provides a habitable place for astronauts to live and conduct scientific experiments.

SpaceX Docking in ISSBut hauling tons of supplies and materials to the International Space Station (ISS) is inefficient and extremely expensive. Sustaining a crew of four astronauts on the ISS with water, power and other supplies, costs nearly one million dollars a day.  Even with the reusable SpaceX rocket which regularly provides supplies to the ISS, it costs $2,500 per pound to launch into space. With four astronauts living on the ISS needing approximately 12 gallons of water a day, it is impractical to stock the ISS with the tons of water needed for long periods of time.

It’s no wonder then that rationing, and recycling is an essential part of daily life on the ISS.  The Space Station must provide not only clean water, but air to breath, power, and ideal atmospheric conditions to sustain life outside earth.

And every drop of liquid is important!

Reclaiming Water for Life Support

The Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) on the ISS is a life support system that provides atmospheric pressure, oxygen levels, waste management and water supply, and fire detection and suppression. The most important function for ECLSS is controlling the atmosphere for the crew, but the system also collects, processes, and stores waste and water produced by the crew…including the furry lab passengers too.

Yes, even mice waste is recycled.

mouse and waterIf the idea of drinking reclaimed water from mice urine and other waste sources sounds unappetizing, consider this, the water the astronauts drink is often cleaner that what many earthlings drink.  NASA regularly checks the water quality and it is monitored for bacteria, pollutants and proper pH (60 – 8.5).

This highly efficient reclamation system processes and recycles fluid from the sink, shower, toilet, sweat, and even condensation from the air. The ECLSS water recovery system on the ISS uses both physical and chemical processes to remove contaminants, as well as filtration and temperature sterilization to ensure the water is safe to drink.

More Innovation for the Future

Providing the astronauts with clean water from reclaimed wastewater at the Space Station is working fine for what they need right now, but it’s not perfect. The ISS system recovers water at a rate of approximately 74 percent. For longer missions to Mars and beyond, this rate must increase to at least 98 percent to sustain longer journeys into space. Scientists are continuously working on better and more efficient close-looped support systems to reduce water loss and improve ways to reclaim water from all waste products.

bacteriaRecently, NASA invested in a new, lower cost solution to biologically recycle and reuse water developed by Pancopia. Pancopia is a small environmental and energy engineering company located in Virginia that focuses on wastewater treatment and research and development projects. Engineers at the firm have discovered an innovative technology that makes use of a group of bacteria called anammox.  Anammox when combined with two other types of bacteria commonly used in conventional wastewater treatment (nitrifiers and denitrifiers), can remove high levels of organic carbon and nitrogen, the two primary pollutants in wastewater.

The combination of these three organisms naturally adjust to changes in the system and eliminates pollutants faster and more reliably than traditional wastewater treatment operations.  And, the cost is significantly less to operate than conventional systems, which requires a lot of energy and consumables to run. In addition, the stability of the anammox process reduces costs by requiring fewer manpower hours to monitor and operate.

Back on Earth

What does all this water and wastewater reclamation innovation mean for us on earth?

Desert in WaterPancopia is currently working on a similar system used on the ISS for municipal wastewater facilities. Using the technology developed for the Space Station, other areas in the world with limited access to clean drinking water, will soon be able to utilize this advanced water filtration and purification system.

This innovative water recycling system initially intended for the astronauts, now has the potential to cut treatment expenses to less than half the current costs for municipal customers, while providing sustainable crystal-clear drinking water especially in arid and drought-stricken communities across the globe.

Man’s search for extraterrestrial life and desire to travel through space may actually have its greatest impact right here on Earth—clean water!

The Water-Energy Nexus: A Vicious Cycle

Water and energy are the two most fundamental ingredients of modern civilization. The water-energy nexus is the relationship between how much water is evaporated to generate and transmit energy, and how much energy it takes to collect, clean, move, store, and dispose of water. Without water, people die. Without energy, we cannot grow food, run computers, or power homes, schools, or offices. As the world’s population grows in number and affluence, the demands for both resources are increasing faster than ever.

The Water-Energy Connection

Energy production is the second largest consumer of water, the first being agriculture. Electric power plants that are fueled by oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear power require exorbitant amounts of water to cool them, and hydropower plants require water to create energy. Likewise, a significant amount of energy is used in the pumping, treatment, and distribution of water, as well as in the collection, treatment, and disposal of wastewater. In addition, the extraction of fossil fuels used for heating and cooling homes also requires vast amounts of water. Clearly, the relationship between energy and water is inexorably intertwined.

Byron Nuclear Generating Station, located near the small city of Byron, Illinois, has been subject to some controversy with respect to a lawsuit in 1981 with concerns over tritium contamination in groundwater. Tritium contamination at Byron and other Illinois nuclear power plants led the state of Illinois to pass legislation requiring plants to report such contamination to the state within 24 hours.

As the population and affluence of the nation continues to increase, so does the demand for both water and energy. Also, climate change has been responsible for increasingly frequent water shortages, requiring communities to find water elsewhere – which requires even more energy. Pumping water from distant areas or glacial icecaps, desalinating ocean water, and highly treating wastewater to potable standards all require exorbitant amounts of energy. Previously, these methods for obtaining potable water were ignored due to their high energy usage. But as water shortages and drought continue to plague the nation, even affecting the historically wet northeast part of the country, more creative ways of meeting the nation’s demand for water must be innovated and implemented.

Likewise, fossil fuels such as oil and gas are being withdrawn at an unsustainable rate, and supplies are dwindling. As these inexpensive energy sources are depleted, our dependence on alternate, more water-intensive sources of energy increases. This endless cycle of water-energy usage has the potential to spiral out of control, and the only way to make a real and lasting change is for policy makers, businesses, and communities to join forces in the planning, management, and conservation of resources and in the innovation of sustainable solutions.

Planning and Management

Many U.S. aquifers span several states
Many U.S. aquifers span several states; map courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

One of the key factors to a sustainable future is communication. In the United States, there is little overlap in governmental agencies when it comes to water and energy. The Department of Energy has been an entity since 1977, and yet our nation still does not have an agency dedicated solely to water planning. While the EPA oversees water quality and the U.S. Geological Survey collects and interprets data related to supply, there is no single federal agency that ensures the effective use of water. In fact, much of the onus of water management lies not with the federal government, but with state agencies and municipalities. This can prove problematic when aquifers or watersheds span multiple cities and town, or even states. A logical approach to water management would be a federal agency that oversees all aspects of water management, from quality to supply to usage. In this way, federal energy and water agencies could collaborate to help forge a sustainable future. For example, when a new power plant is proposed, discussions should take place on not only the siting and permitting of the new facility, but also the effect on air and water quality, as well as water usage and potential for scarcity. In this way, more focused attention on the usage and effects of both energy and water will lead to more holistic — and sustainable — installations.

Value and Conservation

One of the greatest concerns of the modern day American is the risk of running out of inexpensive oil. The cost of oil pushed gasoline prices to $4.48 per gallon in 2008, and was partially responsible for the great recession of 2009. Realizing that the end of cheap oil could spell economic disaster, many people have begun to look at alternate heating sources for their homes, and alternate means to power their vehicles, such as biofuels or electricity. But how much more disastrous would it be to run out of cheap water? Peak oil would admittedly cause economic difficulty as well as some amount of human hardship, but peak water has the potential to cause far direr consequences. Millions of people globally already die from lack of access to an improved water source, and peak water would increase that number exponentially.

Drip irrigation is far more water efficient than spraying
Drip irrigation is far more water efficient than spraying

It is critical that the value of water be realized if we are to start making real changes. Gasoline prices are currently around $2.20 per gallon, while a gallon of municipal water costs less than one penny. And yet, we can live without gasoline – we cannot live without water. As society begins to understand that procuring, treating, and distributing water is an expensive task and that supplies are limited, we can innovate technologies that reduce the amount of freshwater that we use. For example, in the western part of the country, the Ogallala aquifer is being depleted at a rate far higher than it is being replenished, and irrigation accounts for 94% of the groundwater withdrawals in that area. Switching to a more water efficient irrigation process such as drip irrigation rather than spray would save a significant amount of water. Also, utilizing reclaimed water for crop irrigation, cooling power plants, and industry would greatly reduce our groundwater withdrawals. Even at the residential level, conservation is important. Community outreach programs and educational materials can be used to teach residents how they can save water in their homes and businesses. Simple, low-cost initiatives such as mowing grass to a higher level, utilizing rain barrels, and planting native trees and plants can have a huge impact when implemented on a large scale.

And let’s not forget about energy. Energy conservation is directly linked to water conservation, and it is critical that saving energy happen at both the industrial and residential levels. All businesses should examine their energy efficiency and implement energy-saving initiatives. And businesses that utilize a lot of water, such as hospitals and hotels, should conduct water audits to examine and modify their water usage. Wastewater treatment should include technologies that create energy from waste, such as anaerobic digestion, in order to offset the energy used in treatment processes. Likewise, homeowners should be educated on the importance of saving energy. Utilizing energy efficient lighting, turning the heat down by a degree or two, and unplugging appliances, computers, and chargers that are not in use are just a few of the ways that the individual American can save energy. In addition, heating residential water uses a significant amount of energy, while solar water heating is a simple technology that is as inexpensive as it is effective and efficient. Unfortunately, it has not received any type of federal backing or media attention, and remains relatively unknown. Both education and policy are critical to the widespread implementation of energy saving initiatives.

In Conclusion

Energy and water are both precious resources that are critical to our health, our economy, and our way of life — and they are inextricably linked. Of the utmost importance is that we value water. Until water has a realistic price on it, as energy does, it will be seen as a resource that can be used and wasted at free will. Only with accurate pricing can the link between water and energy be made apparent to consumers, and that conserving water conserves energy, and vice versa. Likewise, with true pricing consumers would see that as the price of water increases, so does the price of energy, and that as the price of energy increases, so does the price of water. Feeling the effects in our pockets would increase the appearance of value, act as a strong motivator to more aggressive conservation, and would prompt the innovation and implementation of more efficient, green solutions.

Climate Change and Water Conflict — Keeping the Wolf at Bay

The crisis of our diminishing water resources is just as severe any wartime crisis we have ever faced. —Jim Wright, U.S. Representative, The Coming Water Famine, 1966

water punchWater is life. No truer words were ever spoken, for without freshwater, life simply cannot exist. The first civilization in recorded history settled in Mesopotamia, or the “cradle of civilization” which is now modern day Iraq, Iran, Syria, Kuwait, and Turkey, due to its location between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. And since the dawn of history, water conflict has erupted when supply has become scarce.

worldpopThe first recorded water conflict took place in the “Gu’edena” region, known as the “edge of paradise.” King Urlama, who ruled Lagash from 2450 to 2400 BC, diverted regional water to boundary canals, which dried up boundary ditches and deprived Umma of water. Furthering his father’s work, King Urlama’s son cut off the water supply to Girsu, a city in Umma. Since this first recorded water war, water conflict has erupted regularly on planet Earth, with a high percentage of the conflict occurring in the Middle East.

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the vast majority of water conflict came about as a result of a pre-existing war; that is, water was diverted or targeted as a military tactic. However, since the 1950s, targeted disputes over water access have increased exponentially, which should come as no surprise. After all, global population has nearly tripled in that time, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.3 billion in 2015. And it continues to grow.

At the same time, climate change has begun to wreak havoc on global water supplies. Since 1950, the planet has warmed by approximately 1°, resulting in about 5.7% of the Earth’s total land area shifting toward warmer and drier climate types from 1950–2010. These warmer climates include expansion of arid climate zones and reduction in polar ice caps. And that’s just from one single degree. Experts predict that the earth’s temperature will increase five times that amount during this century alone, and unless we globally commit to taking climate action, at least one-third of the globe will fall into a state of near permanent drought by 2050.

40% of Israel's drinking water comes from desalination, like this IDE seawater desalination plant in Ashkelon
40% of Israel’s drinking water comes from desalination, like this IDE seawater desalination plant in Ashkelon

So what is the solution? Fortunately, global populations are taking notice, and nations have begun to work cooperatively towards a sustainable future. At the Paris Climate Conference held in December of 2015, water was of particular focus: the Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change in the Basins of Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers was signed, and The Paris Call for Actions was officially launched. In addition, individual nations are implementing regulations and guidelines to provide for a more sustainable future. Many nations in the arid Middle East, including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, have embraced desalination as a viable technology for years, and are now looking to reclaimed water to augment their water supply. British Columbia, Canada recently passed The Water Sustainability Act, which allows the government to manage surface water and groundwater as one resource, provide water users with greater certainty regarding their water rights, and establish clear rules about managing water during times of scarcity. The Act, which goes into effect early this year, was enacted to ensure that water stays healthy and secure for future generations of British Columbians.

Purple pipes and signs indicate reclaimed water, which is more frequently being used for irrigation in arid areas like California
Purple pipes and signs indicate reclaimed water, which is more frequently being used for irrigation in arid areas like California

In the United States, water conservation has been brought to the forefront of the public eye, and the EPA has implemented its Sustainable Water Infrastructure program to provide technical support and financial resources to states to increase water and energy efficiency in water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. The goal of the program is to assist water and wastewater facilities in saving water and energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Recycled wastewater is being used to recharge groundwater supplies and to irrigate crops, and the western hemisphere’s largest ocean desalination plant is currently under construction in California. Stormwater is now being viewed as a resource rather than a waste product, with Low Impact Development and sustainable stormwater management practices now commonplace. Engineers are working diligently to innovate energy efficient water conservation technologies, while municipal and governmental entities have been educating the public on the value of water and conservation techniques.

If climate change is allowed to continue uninhibited, people and nations will be forced to compete for water. As is evidenced by the unrest and violence in Syria and the resulting socio-economic devasation, drought and water scarcity exacerbate tensions and contribute to conflict. With increasing population and decreasing supply, there simply won’t be enough water to go around. Even water-rich communities will feel the effects of climate change. While parts of the planet dry up, high latitudes will experience extremely heavy rainfall that increases the level of pollutants, sediment, and nutrients in water, resulting in degraded water quality. Unless climate change is addressed, the global population faces a water crisis that will reach every corner of the globe. As Jean Chrétien, former Canadian prime minister and co-chair of the InterAction Council so eloquently stated,“The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating. Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in future.”


5 Innovative Uses for Reclaimed Water

Purple pipes, such as these used in Collier County, Florida, indicate usage of non-potable reclaimed water

Reclaimed water, or recycled water, is wastewater that has been treated to remove all solids, bacteria, and pathogens. Most often it is used for recharging groundwater supplies, for industrial purposes such as cooling towers, for agricultural and commercial irrigation, and for firefighting, and its use is increasing exponentially, with purple pipes dotting the landscape of our nation. Recycled water is also being used in some incredibly creative ways, and we’ve highlighted five innovative uses for reclaimed water below.


Algae are considered a potent source of biofuel and are also used extensively in the cosmetics and nutritional supplements industries. Since growing algae commercially requires chemical fertilization, it is frequently considered unviable and prohibitively expensive. Chemical fertilizers significantly cut into profits and they are also needed for more crucial crops, making traditional algae growth unsustainable. Fortunately, some scientists from Rice University in Houston, Texas have found a way to grow algae in municipal wastewater. The wastewater already contains lots of natural, free fertilizer, and the algae actually help to purify the water.

Algae grows in pools of wastewater in Houston, TX (photo: Rice University)

In the study, the scientists found that strains of choice, valuable, oil-rich algae grew and thrived in open-air pools of municipal wastewater that had previously undergone solids removal, while at the same time removing more than 90% of nitrates and 50% of phosphorus from the wastewater. Typically, when too many nitrates and phosphorus remain in treated wastewater, environmental issues such as algae blooms and drinking water contamination can occur. And since there is currently no cost-effective way to remove large quantities of nitrates or phosphorus from water, growing algae in wastewater actually provides significant benefit to municipal wastewater treatment plants. It’s a win-win.

International Space Station

93% of all water on board the International Space Station (ISS) is reclaimed from several sources, including breath and sweat condensate, shower runoff, urine from animals — and, on the American side of the station, multi-national human urine. You see, the Russians don’t recycle their urine, but the Americans do. And, not wanting to waste any resources, the Americans also collect urine from the Russian side and purify that as well.

Astronauts drink water made from recycled urine and other wastewater aboard the International Space Station (photo: NASA)

“It tastes like bottled water,” said Layne Carter, water subsystem manager for the ISS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “As long as you can psychologically get past the point that it’s recycled urine and condensate that comes out of the air.”

Not only do the Americans and Russians disagree on urine reclamation, they also disagree on purification methods. The Russians utilize silver in its ionic form, and Americans use iodine, although there are plans to switch to silver since it doesn’t need to be filtered from the water prior to consumption. However, Carter believes it is smart for the two nations to employ differing purification methods aboard the station.

“It really makes a lot of sense to have dissimilar redundancies in the space station in case one of the systems has problems,” noted Carter.

The ISS does keep around 2,000 liters of backup water in case of an emergency, but Americans don’t want to take any chances. Speaking on recycling their Russian colleagues’ urine, Carter explains, “We collect it in bags, and then the crew hauls it over to the US side. We don’t do 100% of the Russian urine. It depends on our time availability.”

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield produced a video while he was on board ISS in 2013, and in it he defends the consumption of reclaimed water, including urine.

“Before you cringe at the thought of drinking your leftover wash water and your leftover urine, keep in mind that the water that we end up with is purer than most of the water that you drink at home,” he said. “That makes the International Space Station its own self-contained environment. That’s a critical step towards living for long periods off of planet Earth.”

Drinking Water

Wichita Falls, Texas constructed a 12.5-mile pipeline to deliver the City’s treated wastewater directly to its drinking water treatment plant (photo: Shelley Kofler)

Last year, the then drought-stricken city of Wichita Falls, Texas built a 12.5-mile pipeline that connected its wastewater treatment plant directly to the Cypress Water Treatment Plant, where wastewater was purified into drinking water. At the time, Wichita Falls was suffering from its worst drought on record, with its lakes hovering at an alarming 23%, and the wastewater treatment plant supplied anywhere from 30-50% of demand per day. And while some residents initially opposed the idea, they quickly adapted to the idea of drinking recycled water — after all, there was little choice.

“The water coming out of our wastewater treatment plant is actually cleaner than the lake water it will be mixed with,” said Daniel Nix, Utility Operations Manager for the City of Wichita Falls. He added that the wastewater is highly treated through a four-step process prior to being piped to the drinking water treatment plant where it is then mixed with lake water — and highly treated again.

In July, Wichita Falls was able to stop supplementing its drinking water supply with treated wastewater, as much of Texas experienced heavy rains in the spring that restored lakes and reservoirs almost to capacity. The City now has a drought-proof backup plan that will allow residents and officials to rest a little easier.


Dean Ehnes’ German Pilsner won Best In Show (photo: Mark Jockers)

A very adventurous group of home beer brewers known as the Oregon Brew Crew received approval from the state of Oregon to utilize 100% recycled sewage water to brew beer for its 2015 Sustainable Water Challenge/Pure Water Brew competition. Clean Water Services, a wastewater treatment utility that serves the Portland, Oregon metro area, supplied 300 gallons of reclaimed water from its Forest Grove facility to 25 Oregon Brew Crew members in June, and the home brewing enthusiasts set to work. The competition was held on August 29 at the Raccoon Lodge and Brew Pub in Beaverton, Oregon, with Dean Ehnes winning Best In Show, and the grand prize of $100, for his German Pilsner. Ehnes’ brew, along with the other winners, were showcased at the WateReuse Symposium in Seattle and the Water Environment Federation Conference in Chicago, both held this past September.

Although the Oregon Brew Crew received approval to use reclaimed water for their homebrew competition, direct potable reuse is prohibited in Oregon. Many proponents of recycled water usage would like to see that change, and think craft beer is one of the quickest and easiest ways to capture the public’s attention and support. Clean Water Services utilizes advanced treatment processes including ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and advanced oxidation to ensure the water is clean and pure.

Mark Jockers, a spokesman for Clean Water Services, stated, “We need to be judging water by its quality, and not by its history. The water we’re producing is significantly cleaner than what the safe drinking standards are for water that comes out of taps across the United States.”

And when it comes to the “yuck factor” associated with water reuse, Zachary Dorsey of the WateReuse Association, a nonprofit that supports water recycling, sums it up nicely: “We all live downstream from someone.”

NFL Football

San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium utilizes recycled water to irrigate its playing field (photo: www.levisstadium.com)

With California in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history, it’s no surprise that Levi’s® Stadium, the new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers, is the first NFL stadium to receive a LEED Gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Opened in 2014, the stadium boasts such green features as a 27,000 square foot green roof, energy efficient systems, solar power, and the use of almost exclusively recycled construction materials. Recycled water also plays a huge part in the stadium’s sustainability, with about 85% of all water use coming in the form of recycled water from the City of Santa Clara Water and Sewer Utilities. The reclaimed water is used for playing field irrigation, flushing toilets, cooling towers, and of course, watering the enormous green roof!

The stadium has been very well received, and sets a high bar for other stadiums across the nation to follow suit. Unfortunately for 49ers football fans, the stadium has not helped their team, who is currently in dead last place in the NFL standings.

In Conclusion

As we continue to face ever increasing challenges on our water supply including higher demand, failing infrastructure, population growth, climate change, and drought, individuals and communities are increasingly viewing wastewater as a resource rather than a waste product. Continuing to find unique and practical applications for water reuse will both foster greater public acceptance and protect our most precious resource, paving the way for a sustainable future — a benefit on which we can all agree.

60 Minutes Water Episode Sparks Some Debate

drought_californiaOn May 31, 2015, 60 Minutes aired an episode on water that discussed the depletion of our nation’s groundwater. 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl met with Jay Famiglietti, a leading groundwater expert and Earth sciences professor at the University of California, Irvine, in an effort to shed some light on the drought affecting California. The report was alarming, noting that we are pumping out our nation’s groundwater faster than it can replenish itself. And while reclaimed water was discussed as a possible solution, with Ms. Stahl dramatically drinking water that had been wastewater just 45 minutes earlier, at least one reporter thinks the 60 Minutes water report fell somewhat flat.

Clark Wolf, a contributor for Forbes Magazine, accused the popular Sunday evening news show of only showing half the story. While 60 Minutes successfully explained the realities of groundwater and aquifers, Wolf notes, the popular news program failed to illustrate the greater implications or, beyond reclaimed water, provide any type of long-term, viable solution. In addition, Wolf notes that California’s agricultural sector needs to look towards more sustainable growing methods.

So who is right? You can find the 60 Minutes video and transcript here and Wolf’s article here in order to form your own opinion. But no matter which news piece is perceived as more accurate, one thing is certain: people are finally talking about water, its scarcity, and how we can protect it for future generations. And we can all agree that that is a good thing.

Reclaimed Water — From Toilet to Tap Infographic

Reclaimed Water — From Toilet to Tap Infographic

Drinking water from a perfectly clean toilet at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California proves difficult for most visitors.

Would you drink water that was once used in the toilet? Chances are you just gave an emphatic “no”. But what if that water is actually so highly treated and processed that it is actually cleaner than the water currently coming out of most people’s taps? For the overwhelming majority of people, their answer is still that same emphatic “no”. Commonly referred to as the “yuck factor”, the idea of drinking recycled wastewater is simply too much for the human mind to overcome. However, climate change, population growth, and overuse have strained freshwater resources, and people may just need to change their way of thinking.

A Limited and Precious Resource

In the developed world, fresh water is taken for granted, when it is in fact a limited resource. About 97% of the Earth’s water is saltwater. More than two-thirds of the remaining fresh water is frozen in glaciers, which leaves less than 1% of the Earth’s water as fresh and available. In addition, the global population is growing astronomically at the same time that historic droughts plague Australia and the United States, two of the world’s largest water consumers. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix are three of the driest cities in America, and they are also experiencing some of the highest rates of population growth. Conservation isn’t working, water supplies are running dry, and the most drought-stricken areas are looking, albeit reluctantly, to reclaimed wastewater.

“When we talk about reclaimed wastewater, we’re not talking about something that’s simply at the level of convenience,” says David Feldman, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. “We’re really dealing with an issue that is going to be affecting every country, every society.” Avoiding future clashes over water, he says, will mean having to drink treated wastewater.

There is no doubt that we all drink water that has passed through a human or animal at some point. The Earth’s water is a finite resource that constantly cycles, and treated wastewater is frequently discharged into lakes and rivers that supply drinking water. But while most people have no problem drinking water from sources that have been augmented with treated wastewater, the thought of taking water flushed down the toilet and directly repurposing it into drinking water is a bit tough to, well…swallow.

Reclaimed Water Infographic - From Toilet to Tap
Reclaimed Water Infographic – From Toilet to Tap. Feel free to share, with attribution.

Reclaimed Water Usage Today

Singapore is arguably the world’s most well-known and successful wastewater recycler. Their reclaimed water, branded as NEWater, supplies 15 percent of the population’s water, and is considered cleaner and purer than any tap water. In Australia, the city of Perth will receive up to 20% of its drinking water from reclaimed sources in coming decades. And, through public education and marketing efforts, the Perth project has a reported 76% public support.

Similar efforts are also in progress in the U.S. In San Diego, a 2004 survey indicated that 63 percent of county residents opposed adding treated wastewater to the drinking water supply. But as the drought has worsened and the population has grown, the city is running out of options. Therefore, the San Diego County Water Authority turned to community and environmental groups to help educate the public about the safety of recycled water, and in November, 2014, the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to advance a $2.5 billion plan to recycle wastewater. What’s more, recent polls show that opposition to reclaimed water has fallen to only 25 percent.

The Orange County Water District, which serves 2.4 million people in California, plans to boost production of recycled water next year from 70 million to 100 million gallons per day. And, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves 1.8 million people in the San Francisco Bay area, has decided to pursue construction of facilities to turn wastewater into drinking water for Sunnyvale and western Santa Clara County.

In Texas, the drought-stricken city of Wichita Falls has built a 13-mile pipeline that connects its wastewater plant directly to the plant where water is purified for drinking. In addition, the Colorado River Municipal Water District has been piping treated effluent from a wastewater treatment plant in Big Spring, Texas to a drinking-water plant that serves Big Spring, Snyder, Midland and Odessa for more than a year.

Explaining the Treatment Process

Biological_Wastewater_TreatmentEducation is the key to making recycled wastewater — or reclaimed water — more palatable, and explaining the process of water treatment is the most critical step in changing public opinion. When a person flushes a toilet, wastewater is carried through sewers to a municipal wastewater treatment plant. There, large solid material is separated from liquid with grates or bar screens. Next, the wastewater enters a settling tank where smaller solids fall out of solution and oils rise to the surface where they are skimmed off. The wastewater next moves to an aeration tank, where microbes feed on the waste and break it down. The water is then disinfected with chemicals such as bleach and chlorine. After an additional settling step, the treated water undergoes reverse osmosis where it passes through filters that remove even the tiniest of contaminants, like viruses or pharmaceuticals. Finally, the water is treated with ultraviolet light to fully disinfect the water by scrambling the DNA of anything that might still be living in it. This highly treated water is actually cleaner and more pure than most water currently pouring from our taps.

Getting Past the “Yuck Factor”

drinking water thumbs upTechnologies being developed today will make wastewater recycling more efficient and less expensive, but changing people’s opinion of drinking “toilet to tap” is the bigger challenge, experts say. Studies show that human beings naturally possess a strong aversion to consuming any food or drink that could possibly contain pathogens. However, there are some steps that can be taken to change public opinion. Adding an extra step in the treatment process, like discharging treated wastewater to a river that then carries it from one city to a drinking water treatment plant in another city, can eliminate the mental stigma. Discharging wastewater into rivers and aquifers instead of water pipes is more expensive but may be useful for gaining public acceptance. Public information campaigns that emphasize economic benefits, protection of U.S. water supplies, and personal safety can also increase public support. In addition, endorsement by a trusted group, like the Surfrider Foundation who helped raise support for wastewater reuse in San Diego, can also reduce stigma.

Running Out of Options

Population growth, depleted resources, climate change, and severe drought have all impacted our water supply. Reports have stated that California will run out of water by 2016. In Las Vegas, Lake Mead has shrunk to 60% of the size it was two decades ago. Wichita Falls, Texas is under a Stage 5 Drought Catastrophe. Conservation efforts have failed, our water supplies are drying up, and municipalities do not have the resources to supply enough water to the public. While the thought of drinking treated wastewater may be repugnant, it is only a matter of time before we run out of options. Notes Feldman, “I think between climate change, increased urbanization, and growing demands for food and energy, there’s really no way around reusing wastewater.” And unless something drastically changes, repurposing wastewater will not only be accepted in the future, but commonplace.