Water Recycling Moves Into the Mainstream

Water supplies are on the minds of many as droughts are ravaging much of the South and beginning to creep up the East Coast and Midwest. One town in North Texas even turned its residential water supplies off because it simply ran out.

Such drought-caused water shortages are jetting the issue of water supplies into the mainstream – NPR ran a piece this morning chronicling what everyone in the water industry knows to be the biggest obstacle to the technology: Squeamish people uncomfortable with the idea that the water they are drinking, washing their hands with and cooking with once whooshed out the bowl of someone’s toilet or down the drain of a shower.

It doesn’t matter that, as nearly everyone learned in grade school about the water cycle, the “clean” water that spews from taps is the same water that has cycled through this system for millennia. Before it made its way into the utility’s system, that water may have spent time cooling a power plant, providing a home to fish in a river or sustaining a dinosaur. When wastewater plants are done treating dirty water, they release it back into the environment, where it rejoins the water cycle and will someday be picked up by the intake pipe of another utility. “Recycling” water simply takes out this middle step.

But people have a hard time internalizing this, which is why recycling hasn’t caught on. And frankly, that’s a bit frustrating. In times of water shortages, people often wistfully look to desalinization as a panacea – if only we could desalinate all this seawater at a lower cost! All our problems would be over. But water recycling is viable and cost-effective right now. Water recycling could mitigate the shortages caused by this historic draught. In fact, several countries have already turned to the technology to supply their needs, including Singapore and some areas of Australia. Even astronauts have been experimenting with recycling all the water on board their spacecrafts.

A concerted public awareness campaign has the power to combat the misunderstanding that keeps utilities from being able to begin recycling water. We’ve convinced people that smoking is detrimental to lung health, that we should be screened for colon cancer and that drunken driving is not an option. Some celebrity spokesmen and a barrage of PSAs—not to mention wholehearted support from our governmental leaders—could do much to show the public that recycled wastewater is no different from the water they drink every day. Indeed, isn’t real leadership implementing policies that are beneficial for your constituency regardless of whether they’re popular?

As the droughts continue – NOAA estimates that most of the ongoing droughts will persist – and water shortages continue to plague the South, I hope that local leaders will realize this and turn to recycling. Instead of parched earth and lawn-watering restrictions, we could be secure in the water we have.

Posted by Laura Williams on Aug 16, 2011