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
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.)

+ The latest drought con­di­tions in Cali­for­nia. (via U.S. Drought Mon­it­or)

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 »
LEGACY PLAY
Sanders and Clinton Spar Over … President Obama
10 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama became a surprise topic of contention toward the end of the Democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton reminded viewers that Sanders had challenged the progressive bona fides of President Obama in 2011 and suggested that someone might challenge him from the left. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” she said. “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow,” replied Sanders, before getting in another dig during his closing statement: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

THE 1%
Sanders’s Appeals to Minorities Still Filtered Through Wall Street Talk
11 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It’s all about the 1% and Wall Street versus everyone else for Bernie Sanders—even when he’s talking about race relations. Like Hillary Clinton, he needs to appeal to African-American and Hispanic voters in coming states, but he insists on doing so through his lens of class warfare. When he got a question from the moderators about the plight of black America, he noted that during the great recession, African Americans “lost half their wealth,” and “instead of tax breaks for billionaires,” a Sanders presidency would deliver jobs for kids. On the very next question, he downplayed the role of race in inequality, saying, “It’s a racial issue, but it’s also a general economic issue.”

DIRECT APPEAL TO MINORITIES, WOMEN
Clinton Already Pivoting Her Messaging
12 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It’s been said in just about every news story since New Hampshire: the primaries are headed to states where Hillary Clinton will do well among minority voters. Leaving nothing to chance, she underscored that point in her opening statement in the Milwaukee debate tonight, saying more needs to be done to help “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market” and immigrant families. She also made an explicit reference to “equal pay for women’s work.” Those boxes she’s checking are no coincidence: if she wins women, blacks and Hispanics, she wins the nomination.

THE QUESTION
How Many Jobs Would Be Lost Under Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer System?
19 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 11 million, according to Manhattan Institute fellow Yevgeniy Feyman, writing in RealClearPolicy.

Source:
WEEKEND DATA DUMP
State to Release 550 More Clinton Emails on Saturday
19 hours ago
THE LATEST

Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.

Source:
×