Overcoming the ‘ick’ factor of wastewater recycling

March 12, 2009

After an hourlong tour of the world’s largest wastewater recycling plant, where 70 milion gallons of pre-treated sewer discharge is distilled daily to help replenish the underground drinking supply of Orange County, California, I was led to a sink with a faucet. There I was presented with a plastic cup and invited to take a sip.

Crystal clear and utterly tasteless, the sample was refreshing and perfectly safe for human consumption.  Some minerals are actually reintroduced to the water before it’s pumped back out of the ground for general consumer use.

Michael Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District and the chief engineer behind the plant, assured me that the water exceeds all government drinking standards, even though the state requires the county to put it into the local aquifer — for additional natural filtration — before offering it to the public.

NASA has recently developed a new system for purifying urine and other wastewater for astronauts to drink in space. But this is wastewater recycling for the masses.

The technology has been available for years but was long disparaged by cynics in the media and politics as “toilet-to-tap.”

Now with drought-related water shortages expected to worsen from climate change, even as cities continue to grow, the scarcity and escalating price of fresh surface water has made recycling more economically viable and helped it overcome the “yuck” factor.

The year-old, $481 million Orange County facility, called the Groundwater Replenishment System, produces enough purified water to meet the drinking needs of 500,000 people and is serving as a model for numerous cities across California looking to augment their own aquifer supplies.

Several smaller plants exist around the world, including one in the southern African country of Namibia, where purified wastewater is added directly into the public drinking supply, without first percolating through an aquifer or settling in a reservoir. In the parlance of the industry, that’s called “direct potable reuse.”

Look at Part 3 of our series on the water crisis in the U.S. West for more on recycling and other water technologies, including ocean water desalination.

Photo credit: Reuters/Steve Gorman (Michael Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District, stands near a microfiltration unit in February 2009).


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when waste ends up leaking from a sweage plant and taken up by tree roots, and the water transpired into the atmosphere, it will eventually return as rain, enter a filtration plant, and then an human mouth via a faucet; ie we all drink recycled water anyway

Posted by jd | Report as abusive

Where does the general public think their toilet waste goes? Right, the sewage works. Then, where? Into the river, lake, stream, sea. Where does their drinking water come from? Correct – the same river, lake, stream that the sewage effluent went into. So it is toilet to tap already and has been for hundreds of years. But for the last century or so we have been able to treat water so that 99.9% of the harmful things in it are removed. Advance wastewater reuse like Orange County removes 99.99%, so in fact it’s even better. Get over it, people!

Posted by Robin Wiseman | Report as abusive

Toilet to tap or toilet to garden irrigation, that is irrelevant here, you shouldn’t drink tap water here (in Thailand) anyway. There is a big need for clean water for irrigation, and modern wastewater treatment systems, such as the ones using microfiltration, allow to reclaim all wastewater and reuse it for irrigation etc.

Any ‘ick’ factor is a luxury we should not and cannot afford.

Posted by Wastewater Treatment Thailand | Report as abusive