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Would You Drink Sewage?

Would You Drink Sewage?

If you’re a resident of Wichita Falls, Texas, that question isn’t theoretical, because you’re already doing it. The Texas town has begun blending treated wastewater into the water supply to make up for water shortages, in a tactic known, fittingly, as “direct reuse.” While Portland has emptied a reservoir because a teenager peed into it, Wichita Falls has no such qualms — though the pee is carefully treated first to avoid causing illness among residents.

Toilet to tap might sound like a gross way to meet the water needs of citizens, but Texas, like parts of the South, Southwest and California, is struggling with severe drought conditions, and it can’t afford to turn up its nose at an abundant source of water.

Numerous cities already use treated wastewater for irrigation, arguing that there’s no reason to waste potable water on highway medians and other purely ornamental installations of civic landscaping. It’s also used in farming around the world, where sewage can actually provide a nice bonus, since it carries an assortment of nutrients. While the use of raw sewage on edible crops is restricted in many nations (including the US), the subject has been researched to explore the safety boundaries and attempt to establish some guidelines.

If it’s good enough for crops, is it good enough for people? Wichita Falls thinks so, and it’s not alone. Wastewater is taken through seven filtration stages and subjected to reverse osmosis filtration, and the system is heavily alarmed to detect microorganisms and other contaminants that might endanger the water supply. Brownwood, Texas, has also been exploring the possibility of a direct reuse water supply.

In California, a similar system has involved the discharge of wastewater back into the environment, where it filters through the aquifer before being routed back into pipes — direct reuse just skips this stage and relies on heavily-engineered filtration systems. A plant in Namibia has operated since the late 1960s, illustrating how venerable this technology is. Astronauts, meanwhile, drink recycled urine.

While it might seem distasteful, this could be a new reality across much of the world in the coming years as the global population grows and puts more pressure on water supplies. Even as demands for water rise, sources of safe water are being crunched by drought conditions, pollution and demands from agriculture. Worldwide, access to potable water is in doubt for many communities, and any measure that provides people with safe, clean drinking water is something to get excited about.

Direct reuse can be expensive to implement, but it’s likely more cities will be exploring the possibility as they confront water shortages, extended years of water restrictions due to drought, and other limitations on access to drinking water. Such filtration systems are a forward-thinking and smart move that allows people to prepare for the inevitable ahead of time, so that they aren’t scrambling during the peak of a drought to accommodate water needs. The time to work out wrinkles with such systems is now, not when communities across drought-stricken regions are relying on them as a primary water source.

 

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Photo credit: John Pastor.

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61 comments

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3:04AM PDT on Jul 25, 2014

No, thanks.

9:54PM PDT on Jul 23, 2014

We are already- look at filth in oceans, lakes, rivers and air.

9:31PM PDT on Jul 23, 2014

Good article but a real dumb question.

10:59AM PDT on Jul 23, 2014

Residents in Detroit have their water shut off. We're being asked to conserve water, not to water our lawns as often, to take quicker showers, not to flush as often, restaurants only serve water upon request, etc.

Meanwhile...

Half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land growing feed and fodder for livestock. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, but 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat. If these costs weren't subsidized by the American taxpayers, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound!

Livestock producers are California's biggest consumers of water. Every tax dollar the state doles out to livestock producers costs taxpayers over seven dollars in lost wages, higher living costs and reduced business income. Seventeen western states have enough water supplies to support economies and populations twice as large as the present.

Nearly 75% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society)

Half of all fresh water worldwide is used for thirsty livestock. Producing eight ounces of beef requires an unimaginable 25,000 liters of water, or the water necessary for one pound of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year.

CAN YOU SEE THE OBVIOUS SOCIAL INJUSTICE?!

8:53AM PDT on Jul 23, 2014

Is it possible that Texans and this country would better off f Texas has seceded to become a part of MX. long ago during the Alamo!

This type o treatment is that of a third world county poor and barren and coerced to drink Septic Water is abusive and actions of a very poor country. And to think that with all the money down in TX this is happening in the 21st century!

7:27PM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

when big agribusiness overuses the Ouigala Aquifer for years, then towns that sit on top of it, such as Wichita Falls, runs out of water easily!

6:07PM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

There are ways to treat sewage that result in perfectly clean water. What do you think a septic system is, after all -- sewage water that is filtered by rock, dirt, etc. over 100's of feet, through tree roots and bacteria, until the aquifer below it is recharged. However, that's NOT what this sounds like; and I'd certainly be implementing very stringent water controls before considering what they're proposing here.

5:25PM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

I saw a show years ago on the science channel or someplace like it.

They had a series of 5 interconnected ponds in it was choked with water weeds.

Raw sewage was dumped into the first pond, that because of the nutrients.

It then flowed into a second pond, also weedy.

On to the next, by now the weeds had removed enough of the nutrients, that fish were living in it.

Through another pond, & into the last one, where a guy dipped up a cup & drank it.

All natural, no chemicals, & they had something that cut the weeds from the first ponds.

They piled them up & let them decompose.

trapping the methane gas, & using it to power the whole operation.

5:22PM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

But America can waste water with fracking, chemical poison runoffs, and car washes? Okay, if I ever come through Wichita Fals, I won't drink the water there.

4:40PM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

Given how much water we use, we basically have no other choice. However, animal agriculture uses lots of water, as well as many other resources. If people simply went vegan, that would save a lot of water.

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