I can't wait to drink wastewater

 

I'm not really a water connoisseur. I can't tell the difference between bottled "mountain spring" water and ordinary tap water, and all the various brands of bottled water taste alike to me. There is, however, one kind of water I'm just longing to sip. Unfortunately, it's not yet on the market, but I'm hoping it will be eventually. It's San Diego sewage water -- recycled, of course.

Why do I find the prospect of drinking recycled sewage exciting? Out of civic pride, you might say. Colorado River water is partly recycled wastewater, after all, and if it comes to a choice, as a loyal San Diegan, I prefer our sewage to the Las Vegas product any day. Why drink wastewater from other towns when you can drink your own?

Civic pride aside, what's officially called "indirect potable reuse" -- a vague term better known as toilet-to-tap -- has all kinds of attractive advantages. Sewage purification is cheaper than desalination; although the process is extremely similar, sewage purification requires less energy, since the pressure needed in the reverse osmosis step is considerably less than that for ocean desalination. It's easier on the environment than desalination, because not only does it avoid the problem of inadvertently killing fish and fish larvae in the intake, but it also reduces the amount of treated effluent discharged into the ocean or nearby rivers. In fact, there are all kinds of reasons to love indirect potable reuse: It's cleaner, it's greener and other counties do it, too.

That's why I continue to be astonished at the public debate over toilet-to-tap, both here in San Diego and elsewhere. I'm not surprised that people have concerns. What surprises me is the number of politicians and other influential public figures who perpetrate myths about toilet-to-tap -- especially those who ought to know better.

Only two years ago, San Diego's city council had to override the mayor's veto to approve a study of toilet to tap. The study would be the first step towards a full-scale project to augment drinking supplies by adding purified wastewater to a city reservoir. But like other San Diego water recycling projects in the past, it has sparked controversy, and support remains tenuous at best. Earlier this summer, city council member Sherri Lightner nearly stalled the project, asking the council to reconsider a key contract she'd earlier voted to approve, citing concern for public safety and taxpayer dollars. Her effort failed, but only because councilman Kevin Faulconer, an opponent of sewage recycling, believed that in spite of his own objections, the city should not renege on a contract. He cast his vote to keep the study and rescued it again -- at least for now.

As this latest little contretemps demonstrates, it's still possible that San Diego's latest sewage purification project could perish as others have in the past, another casualty of the wonderfully irrational debate about water in the West.

Of course, we want to make sure our drinking water is safe. And, of course, the merits of any particular project are fair game for debate. But to raise doubts about the safety of the technology is misguided -- plain and simple. There are a number of other cities and counties, both in the United States and abroad, that have purified sewage for drinking water, and they've been doing so for years.

I have spoken with scientists, engineers and public officials with multiple water agencies that purify sewage for drinking water or are considering doing so; I have toured the plant in Orange County that recycles some 70 million gallons of water a day, and for my part, I have no doubt that, if properly implemented, the technology is unquestionably safe. Even if I did have any qualms, there is one unanswerable argument that overrides any objections: Like it or not, we drink recycled sewage anyway.

That's why I'm glad that Sherri Lightner's attempt to derail the pilot project seems to have failed; that's why I hope that similar efforts to obstruct water recycling will meet with a similar fate. This issue is too important to become just another political football. Recycled wastewater offers us an innovative new source of clean water. It's not the solution to the West's water crisis, because there is no one single solution to the West's water crisis. It's just an excellent place to start. What happens in Vegas can stay in Vegas; I'm ready to start drinking my hometown sewage instead. Right now, there's nothing I'd like more than a cool fresh glass of recycled San Diego sewer water.

Jonathan Parkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in La Jolla, California.


High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.