Opinion

Two Enviro Students Suggest: Time to Embrace ‘Toilet to Tap’

When it comes to recycled wastewater, get over the yuck and suck it up.

By Connor Robinson and Jack Satzewich 19 Jun 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Connor Robinson and Jack Satzewich are recent graduates of Simon Fraser University. Both will be starting their masters in Environmental Management this fall, Robinson at UBC and Satzewich at SFU.

[Editor's note: The Tyee was a proud partner with Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Environment on a recent undergraduate department opinion-editorial writing contest. Students had the chance to workshop their ideas and turn their critiques into compelling arguments. After reading the final submissions, it’s clear the next generation is thinking critically about our environmental future — and it gives us hope. This is the last of three winning entries in the contest.]

Imagine Peter. Peter lives in the parched Orange County region of southern California and happily uses rainwater and greywater for his daily household water needs. His wastewater is treated in his own, personal residential water recycling system and combined with a small amount of water piped to his house from his city’s wastewater treatment plant.

This way, Peter reduces his water consumption and improves the water security of his household and community. He is doing the best he can to live a normal life in a time of drought.

So why aren’t more of us like Peter? The general perception of wastewater recycling does not match what science tells us; most don’t understand or are unwilling to accept its wide-ranging benefits, and government policy is slowing technological progress. In the past, this system has been termed “toilet to tap” and has greatly suffered from the moniker.

The idea of drinking and using treated wastewater may sound gross, but as a society we need to get over the “yuck” and suck it up — literally. Wastewater has been used for crop irrigation in California for over a century, and recent studies conducted with public participation in Orange County have proven it to be perfectly safe for ingestion. That’s right — recycled wastewater is safe for human consumption. The main barrier to its widespread adoption and integration is psychological.

Nonetheless, the people of Orange County, California have accepted the science and allowed for the implementation of wastewater treatment programs. A respondent to a KPCC radio interview in Orange County said he thought “if they could do it and do it right and make sure that it’s proper, then it’s probably a good deal,” referring to the Orange County Water District.

Wastewater recycling has been practiced for quite some time in California, but has traditionally occurred through indirect processes — channeling recycled wastewater through aquifers and streams, reducing the degree of human contact. However, with today’s technological capabilities we should not be stopping there. The recent drought in California convinced some citizens to warm up to the idea of direct potable reuse to bolster existing supplies.

Many places around the world face an uncertain future regarding their water security and need to take larger steps like Peter toward reusing their wastewater. After all, water is a precious resource that we continually flush away.

Droughts are happening more often and are more extreme, and we should be much better prepared when they happen again. We need to have institutions and policies established that help to mitigate the stress on a strained water supply and provide safe, reliable drinking water during times of need. The time to act is not later, but now. If we fail to prepare for an almost certainly warmer and possibly drier future, we may be ill equipped when severe droughts hit.

Population increase puts pressure on already strained water supplies, especially in vulnerable regions. B.C.’s population is set to increase by 25 per cent in 25 years, while the population of the Central Okanagan — geographically and ecologically similar to the regions hardest hit by California’s drought — is set to increase by 37 per cent in less than 25 years.

So how can we in B.C. be more like Peter in California? For starters, we need to rid ourselves of the perception that our long-term water security is any greater than that of Californians. In the 1970s, Kim Stephens — now a professional engineer, then a student at the University of British Columbia, didn’t think there would ever be a five-month drought.

“This year,” he told the Province, referring to the 2015 drought in Metro Vancouver, “we came very close to a six-month drought.”

Government needs to take action to allow for such wastewater systems to be in place. Members of the community need to support these initiatives and get involved with the science. As the California Water Board suggests, addressing public perception issues and advancing legislation surrounding potable water reuse will be crucial for California in meeting its water recycling goals and mandates.

The first, more direct option, such as residential wastewater recycling, may seem out of reach to some, but one thing we can call do is vote. Whenever there is an election, we should choose candidates who are willing to accept new science and adopt new technologies for wastewater recycling, for all end uses, and reap the many benefits that these systems have to offer.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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