Amid Drought, California Warms to Toilet Water

The state is putting $1 billion behind water-recyling efforts. But will people drink it? Do they even have a choice?

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
Brian Resnick
April 16, 2014, 11:22 a.m.

With a re­cord-set­ting, once-in-500-years drought (so bad it can clearly be seen from space) still un­der­way, it may be time for Cali­for­nia to em­brace toi­let wa­ter. Re­cycled toi­let wa­ter, that is: com­pletely clean, safe-to-drink wa­ter that just so hap­pens to have already passed through the mu­ni­cip­al sup­ply. If it’s good enough for as­tro­nauts to re­cycle ur­ine and wastewa­ter for re­use, it’s good enough for Cali­for­ni­ans, right?

This idea is noth­ing new. For dec­ades, such pro­grams have been pro­posed and then shut down in col­lect­ive cries of “yuck” across Cali­for­nia mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies. The ex­cep­tion is Or­ange County, which is cur­rently look­ing to ex­pand its sys­tem, which gen­er­ates 7 mil­lion gal­lons of re­cycled wa­ter every day.

Cali­for­nia has re­cently al­loc­ated $1 bil­lion ($200 mil­lion out­right, and $800 mil­lion more in low-in­terest loans) to get more re­cycled wa­ter in­to the drink­ing sup­ply. Gov. Jerry Brown is­sued a rare sign­ing state­ment when he signed in­to law a meas­ure to ex­plore statewide stand­ards for wastewa­ter man­age­ment by 2016. “Cali­for­nia needs more high-qual­ity wa­ter, and re­cyc­ling is key to get­ting there,” he said. Just a few months after sign­ing, in Feb­ru­ary, the main state wa­ter-dis­tri­bu­tion au­thor­ity an­nounced that it was turn­ing off the tap to some rur­al com­munit­ies due to low sup­plies. (Au­thor­it­ies are also wor­ried about wa­ter theft.)

Des­pite the cur­rent en­thu­si­asm, re­cent ef­forts to re­cycle pot­able wa­ter have been stifled. In 1997, San Diego pro­posed adding re­cycled wa­ter to its drink­ing sup­ply, with a goal of provid­ing 10 per­cent of the city’s drink­ing wa­ter with re­cycled wa­ter by 2001. The city coun­cil scrapped the plan in 1999, amid pub­lic out­cry. In 2004, 63 per­cent of San Diego wa­ter cus­tom­ers said they op­pose wa­ter re­cyc­ling.

Los Angeles, too, had re­cycled-wa­ter am­bi­tions. In 2000, the city built a plant cap­able of provid­ing 120,000 homes with re­cycled wa­ter. “The plan was aban­doned after pub­lic out­rage,” the Los Angeles Times re­ports.

But the pub­lic sen­ti­ment is chan­ging. In 2012, a poll found 73 per­cent of San Die­gans said they’d fa­vor adding re­cycled wa­ter to their sup­ply, a big shift in less than a dec­ade. But the city hasn’t im­ple­men­ted a pro­gram yet. It does, however, re­cycle wa­ter for non-pot­able use.

The prob­lem with re­cycled wa­ter is purely psy­cho­lo­gic­al. Des­pite the fact the wa­ter is safe and sterile, the “yuck factor” is hard to get over, even if a per­son un­der­stands that the wa­ter poses no harm. In one of­ten-cited ex­per­i­ment, re­search­ers poured clean apple juice in­to a clean bed­pan, and asked par­ti­cipants if they’d be com­fort­able drink­ing the apple juice af­ter­wards. Very few of the par­ti­cipants agreed, even though there was noth­ing wrong with it. It’s forever as­so­ci­ated with be­ing “dirty,” just like re­cycled wastewa­ter.

But just as a bed­pan can make a drink feel dirty, passing the li­quid through something nat­ur­al can make it feel pure again. “One way for wa­ter of­fi­cials to pro­mote this use­ful blind-spot is by in­ter­ject­ing an ex­tra step or two in­to the wa­ter-re­cyc­ling pro­cess, per­haps by in­cor­por­at­ing a short stretch of river in the wa­ter re­cyc­ling plant, or by in­ject­ing treated wa­ter in­to an aquifer,” a 2004 fea­ture by the Amer­ic­an Psy­cho­lo­gic­al As­so­ci­ation reads. That’s what Or­ange County does. The wastewa­ter they pro­cess is sent back in­to aquifers.

All mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies have a way to pro­cess wastewa­ter. Though most of the time, that wa­ter is put out to sea, or dumped in rivers. But it only takes a few ex­tra steps to con­vert wastewa­ter to drink­ing wa­ter. After go­ing through the stand­ard pro­cess (re­mov­ing all sol­id com­pon­ents, skim­ming off oils, break­ing down waste with mi­crobes, san­it­iz­ing via UV light, adding chlor­ine), wa­ter destined to reenter the drink­ing sup­ply goes through a pro­cess called re­verse os­mos­is, in which no mo­lecule that isn’t pure H20 makes it through.

Though the thought of it may seem gross, such re­cycled wa­ter may prove es­sen­tial in the com­ing years, as the cli­mate grows more un­cer­tain, and if Cali­for­nia sees more sus­tained droughts. For now, that bil­lion dol­lars will be­gin to cir­cu­late around the state, prompt­ing wa­ter-re­cyc­ling pro­grams. Escon­dido, a city of 140,000 in north­ern San Diego county, has ap­proved a $285 mil­lion plan to turn all of its sewage in­to ir­rig­a­tion wa­ter over the next 15 years.

After all, as an Escon­dido City coun­cil mem­ber told UT San Diego: “If we don’t have wa­ter, we don’t have any fu­ture.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4889) }}

What We're Following See More »
SANS PROOF
NRA Chief: Leftist Protesters Are Paid
2 days ago
UPDATE
NEW TRAVEL BAN COMING SOON
Trump Still on Campaign Rhetoric
2 days ago
UPDATE
“WE’RE CHANGING IT”
Trump Rails On Obamacare
2 days ago
UPDATE

After spending a few minutes re-litigating the Democratic primary, Donald Trump turned his focus to Obamacare. “I inherited a mess, believe me. We also inherited a failed healthcare law that threatens our medical system with absolute and total catastrophe” he said. “I’ve been watching and nobody says it, but Obamacare doesn’t work.” He finished, "so we're going to repeal and replace Obamacare."

FAKE NEWS
Trump Goes After The Media
2 days ago
UPDATE

Donald Trump lobbed his first attack at the “dishonest media” about a minute into his speech, saying that the media would not appropriately cover the standing ovation that he received. “We are fighting the fake news,” he said, before doubling down on his previous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people." However, he made a distinction, saying that he doesn't think all media is the enemy, just the "fake news."

FBI TURNED DOWN REQUEST
Report: Trump Asked FBI to Deny Russia Stories
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN. But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login