Effluent, effluent everywhere

  • John Mecklin


Even here in the mountain valley splendor of Paonia, Colo., where the people are pleasant, the summers fine, the winters mild and the autumns spectacular, things go wrong sometimes. A few weeks back, everyone in town came home to find a piece of colored paper taped to his or her front door. The door-postings announced, in what amounted to screaming headlines, an official BOIL ORDER. It seemed as if a plague of God had rained down upon previously nearly perfect Paonia. 

If not biblically cataclysmic, the situation was serious. What Paonians had always taken as a birthright - pure mountain spring water, piped straight down from Mount Lamborn - now contained turbidity. And not just a bit of turbidity. Because of heavy rains, Paonia's water now contained as much as 25 units of turbidity - way more than a Paonian could withstand. 

So we needed to boil our drinking water. And if you want to understand the value of water, all it takes is to have a BOIL ORDER lying around the kitchen. Suddenly, water is - why, it's in everything! 

With a boil order in effect, you do not brush your teeth first thing in the morning. First thing in the morning, you boil the water with which you will brush your teeth. You do not fill up the coffee maker. You boil a big pot of water, and then decide whether you'll use it all making coffee, or maybe settle for a teabag thrown in a cupful of boiled water. You do not measure out cans of water to mix with frozen orange juice concentrate; you give the kids milk for breakfast instead, because after two or three days, you're good and sick of everything to do with the BOIL ORDER. 

So you go out and buy a couple of 5-gallon jugs of bottled water and quit boiling water. For anything. Even eggs. After a week or so, during which every restaurant in town competed as to which would have the largest sign announcing its food had been prepared entirely with bottled water, the turbidity was conquered. The order was lifted, and Paonia was back to being very nearly perfect.

But as Peter Friederici explains in this issue's cover story, "Facing the Yuck Factor," dry places across the West are facing water supply and purity problems that make a BOIL ORDER seem quaint. Some Western cities, in fact, are so close to being completely out of water that they're planning to directly recycle their own sewage treatment effluent as drinking water. 

In some sense, of course, we've been drinking effluent - recycled through lakes, rivers, oceans, clouds, rain, snow and aquifers - for all of history. And today's purification technology can turn effluent into drinking water that's cleaner than what now comes out of many big-city taps. Even so, San Diego has discovered that "toilet to tap" isn't exactly a winning political slogan. As the journalistic cliche-makers might say: Only time will tell if another explanation of direct effluent recycling will be more palatable to the voting citizenry. 

I don't imagine "Just one BOIL ORDER this year!" is going to excite the pleasant voters of Paonia, either, but we'll just have to wait and see there, too. It's kind of hard to predict how the winds of change may blow, in a town that's already very nearly perfect.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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