Facing the Yuck Factor

Why the West will have to get over its fear of wastewater recycling


| September 20, 2007


The American West is rapidly drying up, and with few water resources left to tap, municipalities are scrambling to figure out how to supply residents with clean, potable water. Rather than going through the expense of importing water from elsewhere, Peter Friederici reports for High Country News that some cities are figuring out ways to reuse the water they already have.

The small village of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, is constructing a wastewater recycling plant that will soon begin cleaning sewage from people's toilets and drains and putting it back into the public water supply. First, Friederici explains, the wastewater will be cleaned with 'conventional treatments.' Then, the treatment plant will extensively filter the water, before mixing it with groundwater and sending it to people's taps.

Cloudcroft's hard-to-reach location high in the mountains makes wastewater recycling a particularly attractive option. A similar solution, though, could benefit a city like San Diego, California. Friederici reports that San Diego has 'both a water-supply and a water-disposal problem.' The city has to import between 85 and 95 percent of its water, and gets rid of its insufficiently treated effluent by dumping it in the Pacific Ocean (a practice that conflicts with Environmental Protection Agency standards). Wastewater recycling, according to Friederici, could help with both problems by cleaning the effluent and increasing the potable water supply. San Diego city officials have made two separate proposals, one in 1999 and one last year, to begin reissuing some wastewater back into the city's potable water supply, but both plans were met with vehement opposition and shot down.

The problem with wastewater recycling, according to Friederici, is not one of technology, but human psychology. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of drinking reclaimed wastewater, even though it's often held to higher standards than the drinking water that originates from natural sources, such as rivers and groundwater. As Friederici writes: 'Rivers and soils do, in fact, clean water. But the psychological cleansing they do may be equally important. As a result, even the Colorado River -- however thoroughly dammed, diverted, and delivered through aqueducts it may be -- appears more natural, and cleaner, to many people than what's produced by San Diego's wastewater treatment plants. The river takes the yuck out.' -- Chris Gherke

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