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.
Photo credit: John Pastor.