It’s a technology with the potential to ease California’s colossal thirst and insulate millions from the parched whims of Mother Nature, experts say. But there’s just one problem – the “yuck factor.”

As a fourth year of drought continues to drain aquifers and reservoirs, California water managers and environmentalists are urging adoption of a polarising water recycling policy known as direct potable reuse. Unlike non-potable reuse – in which treated sewage is used to irrigate crops, parks or golf courses – direct potable reuse takes treated sewage effluent and purifies it so it can be used as drinking water.

It’s a concept that might cause some consumers to wince, but it has been used for decades in Windhoek, Namibia – where evaporation rates exceed annual rainfall – and more recently in drought-stricken Texas cities.

In California, however, similar plans have run into heavy opposition. Los Angeles opponents coined the derisive phrase “toilet to tap” in 2000 before torpedoing a plan to filter purified sewage water into an underground reservoir, a technique called indirect potable reuse. In 1994, a San Diego editorial cartoonist framed debate over a similar proposal by drawing a dog drinking from a toilet bowl while a man ordered the canine to “Move over.”

Water reuse

Despite those defeats, proponents say the time has finally arrived for Californians to accept direct potable reuse as a partial solution to their growing water insecurity. With Governor Jerry Brown ordering an unprecedented 25% cut in urban water usage because of drought, the solution makes particular sense for large coastal cities such as Los Angeles, they say.

Instead of flushing hundreds of billions of gallons of treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean each year, as they do now, coastal cites can capture that effluent, clean it and convert it to drinking water.

“That water is discharged into the ocean and lost forever,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “Yet it’s probably the single largest source of water supply for California over the next quarter-century.”

To be sure, it will be years, or even a decade, before direct potable reuse systems begin operation in California – if ever. One reason for this is that there is no regulatory framework for the approval of such a system. Currently, a panel of experts is preparing a report to the Legislature on the feasibility of creating such rules. That report is due in 2016.

Not so yucky: Severe drought in California has changed long-held attitudes on potable use of recycled wastewater. Photo: TNS

Not so yucky: Severe drought in California has changed long-held attitudes on potable use of recycled wastewater. Photo: TNS

Potable reuse advocates insist the public’s distaste for the concept is based on ignorance. They note that more than 200 wastewater treatment plants already discharge effluent into the Colorado River, which is a primary source of drinking water for Southern California.

“That’s what I call de facto potable reuse,” said George Tchobanoglous, a water treatment expert and professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis. In an economic analysis last year, Tchobanoglous estimated that by 2020, potable reuse could yield enough to supply eight million Californians, or one-fifth of the state’s projected population.

In potable reuse systems, effluent from a wastewater treatment plant is sent to an advanced treatment facility, where it undergoes a three-step purification process. First, the water is passed through a micro-filter that blocks particles, protozoans or bacteria that are larger than 1/300th the thickness of a human hair. Next, it undergoes even finer filtration in the form of reverse osmosis, in which water is forced through a membrane that blocks fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, viruses and salts. In the third step, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide are used to break down any pathogens or organic compounds that escaped the first two steps.

The result is a purified substance that is cleaner than most bottled waters, according to WateReuse California, a group that advocates for water reuse and desalination. However, it is still sent to a traditional water treatment plant, where it is blended with other sources of water, processed and pumped to household taps.

In an indirect potable reuse system, the water is placed in an “environmental buffer,” such as an underground aquifer or surface water reservoir, where it is stored for a period of time before getting processed in a traditional water treatment plant. It is this type of system that was defeated in Los Angeles.

Concerns over residues

Although potable reuse advocates say opposition is often driven by a visceral response to the process, the so-called yuck factor, those who opposed the Los Angeles project said recently that they did so for a variety of reasons, including cost and the potential long-term effects of the trace quantities of drug compounds, hormones and personal care products found in wastewater and surface water.

“Personally I would not drink water that has been recycled through the toilet to tap process,” said biology professor Steven Oppenheimer. However, Oppenheimer said he would use such water for irrigation, and even household cleaning and bathing.

The presence of so-called contaminants of emerging concern may prove to be one of the main barriers to direct potable reuse. Because of limited scientific knowledge, these compounds are unregulated, meaning that there are no government-prescribed methods for monitoring or removing them. Tchobanoglous and others insist these substances exist in such small quantities that they don’t pose a significant issue.

To some, the contaminant issue argues in favour of using indirect potable reuse systems. Such a system has been operating since 2008 in Orange County, where purified water is pumped into an aquifer and held for six months before being used as drinking water. It recently won approval to store treated water in an open reservoir as part of a pilot programme.

Allison Chan, an environmental engineer who has studied the issue of why some potable reuse projects succeeded while others failed, said that an active public outreach campaign, as well as a crucial need for water, were key factors in projects that won approval. Chan said that although education and outreach generally increased support for potable reuse programmes, it also had the effect of hardening perceptions.

“This just goes to show how the yuck factor can stick with some people.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Monte Morin