Recycling sewage is safe and efficient, so why aren't we doing it?
By Eilene Zimmerman
Posted Friday, Jan. 25, 2008, at 7:33 AM ET
Officials in Orange County, Calif., will attend opening ceremonies today for the world's largest water-purification project, among the first "toilet-to-tap" systems in America. The Groundwater Replenishment System is designed to take sewage water straight from bathrooms in places like Costa Mesa, Fullerton, and Newport Beach and—after an initial cleansing treatment—send it through $490 million worth of pipes, filters, and tanks for purification. The water then flows into lakes in nearby Anaheim, where it seeps through clay, sand, and rock into aquifers in the groundwater basin. Months later, it will travel back into the homes of half a million Orange County residents, through their kitchen taps and showerheads.
It's a smart idea, one of the most reliable and affordable hedges against water shortages, and it's not new. For decades, cities throughout the United States have used recycled wastewater for nonpotable needs, like agriculture and landscaping; because the technology already exists, the move to potable uses seems a no-brainer. But the Orange County project is the exception. Studies show that the public hasn't yet warmed to the notion of indirect potable reuse (IPR)—or "toilet-to-tap," as its opponents would have it. Surveys like one taken last year in San Diego show that a majority of us don't want to drink water that once had poop in it, even if it's been cleaned and purified. A public outcry against toilet-to-tap in 2000 forced the city of Los Angeles to shut down a $55 million project that would have provided enough water for 120,000 homes. Similar reluctance among San Diego residents led Mayor Jerry Sanders to veto the city council's approval in November of a pilot program to use recycled water to supplement that city's drinking water. (A similar plan failed once before in 1999.)
But San Diego is in the midst of a severe water crisis. The city imports 90 percent of its water, much of that from the Colorado River, which is drying up. The recent legal decision to protect the ecosystem of the San Joaquin Delta in Northern California—San Diego's second-leading water source—will reduce the amount coming from there as well. Add to that rising population and an ongoing drought, and the situation looks pretty bleak: 3 million people in a region that has enough water, right now, for 10 percent of them