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Study Points Towards a Future of Toilet-to-Tap Water

Some areas may already have drinking water from reclaimed wastewater

Common Dreams staff

A report from the National Research Council said that advancing technologies make it possible to convert sewage wastewater to potable drinking water and that doing so could confront the growing issue of water scarcity.

USA Today reports:

Treated wastewater poses no greater health risks than existing water supplies and, in some cases, may be even safer to drink, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Research Council, a science advisory group chartered by Congress. "We believe water reuse is a viable option" to deal with growing water scarcity, especially in coastal areas, says Jörg Drewes, an engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines who contributed to the report.

"This can be done reliably without putting the public at risk," he says, citing technological advances. He says it's a waste not to reuse the nation's wastewater, because almost all of it is treated before discharge. This water includes storm runoff as well as used water from homes, businesses and factories.

Of the 32 billion gallons of wastewater discharged every day in the USA, the report says 12 billion - equal to 6% of total U.S. water use - is sent to an ocean or estuary and is thus a lost resource.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that growing population in areas with little water necessitate dealing with the scarcity:

But a number of factors could make use of reclaimed water a must for drinking in the U.S. sooner rather than later despite the high public "yuck" factor, said Jorg Drewes, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and a member of the national Research Council who worked on the report. Those include the increased urbanization of the American population and migration to areas of the coastal South and desert Southwest where water is already scarce.

Water reuse projects can have widely varying costs, the report noted, but Mr. Drewes said there are high costs to importing water into a region where it is scarce.

"Adding freshwater resources as population grows is very difficult today in many areas," he said. "If an area runs out of water it can import it or use the drought-proof supply that is its local wastewater. That already has a pipe system to bring that water in. And in the long run, that's likely more viable and reliable than an imported water source."

USA Today further notes that some people may be unaware that they are already drinking reclaimed wastewater:

In many places, the report says, the public does not realize it's drinking water that was treated after being discharged as wastewater somewhere upstream. For example, wastewater discharged into the Trinity River from Dallas/Fort Worth flows south into Lake Livingston, the source for Houston's drinking water.

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