The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a draft National Water Reuse Action Plan that identifies priority actions supporting the reuse of water for human consumption, agriculture, business, industry, recreation and healthy ecosystems. Items proposed in the draft will require the collaboration between governmental and nongovernmental organizations to implement the actions.
What is Water Reuse?
Water reuse is an innovative and dynamic strategy that can dramatically change the future of water availability in the U.S. Water reuse can be used to meet water demands and mitigate the risks posed by droughts. Recycled water can be used for a wide variety of applications, including agriculture, potable water supplies, groundwater replenishment, industrial processes and environmental restoration. The water reuse process can stem from sources such as industrial process water, agricultural return flows, municipal wastewater, oil and gas produced water, and stormwater.
Why Implement a Water Reuse Action Plan?
The draft National Water Reuse Action Plan is the first initiative of its kind to be coordinated across the water sector. According to EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water, David Ross, forty states anticipate shortages of fresh water within their borders over the next decade. Water reuse has the potential to ensure the viability of our water economy and provide safe and reliable drinking water for years to come.
After extensive research and outreach, it was determined that meaningful advancement of water reuse would best be accomplished by working cooperatively with all water sector stakeholders including federal, state, tribal, and local water perspectives. The EPA hopes to issue a final plan that will include clear commitments and milestones for actions that will increase the sustainability, security and resilience of the nation’s water resources.
What Does the Plan Entail?
The draft National Water Reuse Action Plan identifies 46 proposed actions across ten strategic objectives.
Enable consideration of water reuse with integrated and collaborative action at the watershed scale.
Coordinate and integrate federal, state, tribal, and local water reuse programs and policies.
Compile and refine fit-for-purpose specifications.
Promote technology development, deployment, and validation.
Improve availability of water information.
Facilitate financial support of water reuse.
Integrate and coordinate research on water reuse.
Improve outreach and communication on water reuse.
Support a talented and dynamic workforce.
Develop water reuse metrics that support goals and measure progress.
The EPA is soliciting public input through a 90-day public comment period. This period will seek to:
Identify the most important actions to be taken in the near term.
Identify and describe the specific attributes and characteristics of the actions that will achieve success.
Secure specific commitments to lead/partner/collaborate on implementation of actions.
Every day we encounter wastewater. We create it through flushing the toilet, washing our hands, taking showers, running the dishwasher, and more. In fact, all water affected by human use is wastewater. Although it’s a constant part of our lives, wastewater is often overlooked. Have you ever thought about what happens to the water we flush away? Where does it go? How does it get treated? Do we use it again? Read on to learn about the ways in which we utilize treated wastewater, particularly through direct potable reuse and indirect potable reuse.
The Quick (and Dirty)
The wastewater treatment process begins the second a drop of water goes down the drain. That water becomes sewage – which is 99 percent dirty water. The other one percent is made up of solids, chemicals, fats, nutrients, and other miscellaneous matter. From here, water travels within the sewage network through pipes, pumps, and plants for treatment. First in this process is the screening of large objects and debris from the water. Next, bacteria, contaminants, organic, and inorganic matter are removed through digestion and aeration processes. Within these phases, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are reduced to protect the environment and support our communities. When the water is clean, it then goes on to be clarified and disinfected with chlorine or ultraviolet light.
A Bright Idea
For as long as time, humans have relied on the natural water cycle to obtain drinking water. From the days of sifting water from brooks to later advancements including drinking water treatment facilities – the source of our drinking water has always come from surface or groundwater. When water is plentiful, we source it from watersheds and treat it to drinking water standards. But what happens when water supplies run low? When there is less rain and more demand for water? One solution is potable water reuse – the notion of reusing the used water we normally discard for drinking. The two types of potable water reuse are indirect potable reuse and direct potable reuse.
Indirect Potable Reuse
Indirect potable reuse (IPR) is more common and has been successfully used within the United States for the last 50 years. With IPR, water is first treated at a wastewater treatment facility. It is then pumped into a natural basin or reservoir where it is filtered naturally through the ground before being sent back into the water supply. The downside of IPR is that the water gets ‘dirty’ all over again and needs to be treated once more before it is safe to drink.
Direct Potable Reuse
On the contrary, direct portable reuse (DPR) is a fairly new concept and involves the treatment and distribution of water without an environmental buffer. In this process, the very clean water from the advanced water purification plant is put straight back into the water supply. These advanced purification systems are used by utilities around the world and process and test the water supply to ensure standards are met.
The first DPR system was implemented about five years ago in Big Spring, TX to face the state’s relentless droughts. The DPR system at the Colorado River Municipal Water District in Big Spring takes treated wastewater, purifies it, and then mixes it with the city’s regular water supply. Eventually, water heads back to consumers’ taps.
Although the DPR process is new in the grand scheme of things, it has proven to be effective. As we face global climate change and recognize drinking water as the valuable resource it is, innovations like DPR are certainly beneficial.
Texas is the largest state in the continental United States, and home to Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, three of the top ten most populous cities in the nation. The Lone Star State has pioneered many famous firsts and larger than life landmarks, and seems to do things in its own way. In 1870, Texas built the Waco Bridge, the first suspension bridge in the United States that is still in use today as a pedestrian crossing, and the dome of the capitol building in Austin stands seven feet higher than that of the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C. The world’s longest fishing pier is in Port Lavaca, the world’s first rodeo was held in Pecos on July 4, 1883, and the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden is the world’s largest rose garden, with over 38,000 rose bushes representing 500 varieties of roses set in a 22-acre garden. Texas has a total of 6,300 square miles of inland lakes and streams, second only to Alaska, and more land is farmed in Texas than in any other state in the nation, including California.
It’s no wonder that Texas is also a national leader in water management. With its massive population, vast farming acres, and generally arid climate, the state has taken proactive measures to ensure that it has adequate water supply for its myriad needs. In 1997, Texas developed its first statewide water plan and has faithfully updated it every five years since then. The statewide plan combines information from 16 regional plans, each with its own 50-year projected water demands as well as strategies for new water supply. Since the population in Texas is expected to increase over 80% by the year 2060, growing from 25.4 million to 46.3 million people, the most recent statewide water plan (completed in 2012) predicts a gap between supply and demand of over eight million acre-feet by 2060, which would require an astronomical $53 billion investment in new water supply strategies. And that $53 billion represents less than a quarter of the total need of $231 billion for water supplies, water treatment and distribution, wastewater treatment and collection, and flood control required for the state of Texas in the next 50 years. As a result of this dismal forecast, Texas voters approved a new $2 billion revolving loan fund in an effort to avoid the insurmountable deficit. The fund provides monetary support for projects in the state water plan, and requires that at least 20% of the funds be used for conservation and reuse strategies and 10% be used for rural areas.
Recommendations to increase water supply include reservoirs and wells, conservation, drought management, and desalination. Another strong recommendation is reuse, in which Texas is already a trail-blazing leader. In fact, Texas is the only state in the nation to have implemented direct potable reuse (DPR) in not one, but two cities – Big Spring and Wichita Falls. The Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD), serving the communities of Big Spring, Snyder, and Midland, Texas, spent over ten years researching and testing before determining that their best option was DPR, and in May of 2013, the nation’s first DPR plant, which is capable of treating up to two million gallons of wastewater effluent per day to drinking water standards, was officially opened. Wichita Falls constructed a 13-mile pipeline that connects the city’s wastewater treatment plant to its water treatment plant. Treated wastewater is then piped directly to the water treatment plant for further treatment, with no environmental buffer. However, both plants do mix their wastewater effluent with raw water before treating it for drinking water. As for the “yuck factor” associated with DPR? It was really never an issue. The dire drought conditions and critical need for drinking water made Texans very receptive to DPR. After a few public meetings, press releases, TV and radio spots, and an educational video, local residents were overwhelmingly on board with the idea.
And others have taken notice. California’s Orange County Water District Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) is a cutting-edge indirect potable reuse (IPR) system that could be turned into a DPR system if necessary. The GWRS system takes wastewater effluent that would have discharged into the Pacific Ocean and instead purifies it to actually exceed both state and federal drinking water standards. This highly treated water is then discharged into percolation basins in Anaheim, where sand and gravel naturally filter the water prior to returning it to the drinking water system. In addition, the WateReuse Research Foundation (WRRF) and WateReuse California worked together to raise $4 million from 30 different water and wastewater agencies to support research for DPR. And Colorado, whose population has skyrocketed in recent years and is expected to double from its current five million to ten million by 2050, approved the state’s first ever water action plan in November of 2015.
And this is just the beginning. With population increasing exponentially and supply steadily decreasing due to climate change and drought, local and regional communities as well as states and the federal government will have to continually seek innovative, efficient ways to meet the ever-increasing demand. With its comprehensive water action plan, DPR implementation and education, and proactive funding of water projects, Texas has carved an innovative path that is providing much-needed guidance and hope to a thirsty nation.
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 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
Education 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”
Technologies 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.
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