This legislation might be hard to swallow: Lawmakers are considering a bill that would clear the way for California communities to put highly treated wastewater directly into the drinking water supply.
“The media likes to start off with the catchy phrase toilet to tap,” said Jennifer West, managing director of Water Reuse, about the intensive purification process. “But there’s a lot that goes on between toilet and tap.”
“Those criteria could incorporate a level of public health protection as good as or better than what is currently provided by conventional drinking water supplies.” — Water Resources Control Board.
Assembly Bill 574, authored by Assembly Member Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, would require the State Water Resources Control Board to develop regulations in four years for “direct potable reuse” provided research on public health issues is completed.
Among the subjects for research is the potential health risks of compounds that may be in recycled water such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products like sunscreen and bath gel.
The bill is a response to the board’s December report to the Legislature that concluded it is feasible to develop direct potable reuse, or DPR, regulations that would protect public safety.
“Those criteria could incorporate a level of public health protection as good as or better than what is currently provided by conventional drinking water supplies…,” the report noted.
Conversion of wastewater to drinking water through “indirect potable reuse” already takes in Orange County, Los Angeles and other Southern California communities. In indirect potable reuse, recycled water gets blended with a natural water source before it is pumped up for drinking water. There are also demonstration projects that let people learn about and taste recycled water in such communities as Santa Clara and San Diego.
Orange County, considered a world leader in water reuse, has been contributing recycled water to the drinking water supply since 2008. The treated wastewater provides enough drinking water for almost 800,000 people.
Patel said Orange County never faced organized opposition about its plans to use recycled water despite the initial revulsion many people feel when they first hear about it.
The wastewater goes through a three-step process consisting of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. The Orange County Water District touts on its website that the water meets or exceeds all federal and state drinking water standards.
“It’s a highly thought-out scientific approach that is safe and plentiful and cost-effective,” said Mehul V. Patel, director of water production for the Orange County Water District.
The cost to treat the water is $800 per acre foot as compared to $1,000 per acre foot for using imported water, Patel said. “We’re trying to be cost competitive with imported water,” he said.
Recently the county distributed free bottles of their treated water in Hollywood to show people how good it tastes. “This water is even more pure for most drinking supplies,” Patel said.
Patel said Orange County never faced organized opposition about its plans to use recycled water despite the initial revulsion many people feel when they first hear about it. He credits that with the intense education efforts the water district launched to help people learn about the treatment process.
“People are understanding that we need to have water no matter where it comes from.” — Jennifer Bowles.
Sean Bothwell, policy director of California Coastkeeper Alliance which co-sponsored AB 574, said recycling wastewater is a better option than the current practice of discharging treated wastewater into the ocean. He also prefers it to ocean desalination because of the lesser environmental impact. Ocean desalination harms the environment by the discharge of highly concentrated brine.
But he emphasizes that the best water options in California are conservation and stormwater capture in that order, followed by water recycling. He said all three of those options are better for the environment than imported water and water desalination.
Jennifer Bowles, executive director of the Water Education Foundation, said the California public is more open to the idea of recycling water these days because of the recent five-year drought.
“People are understanding that we need to have water no matter where it comes from,” she said. “We live in a dry state so options are limited.”
West, the managing director of Water Reuse, said water recycling isn’t easy to achieve as it requires highly educated staff trained in using advanced technology. But she said the effort is worth it.
“it’s a way to help sustainably use our water supply,” she said. “It’s not the miracle that solves all water problems but it has tremendous potential.”