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
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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.”

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