Amid Drought, California Warms to Toilet Water

The state is putting $1 billion behind water-recyling efforts. But will people drink it? Do they even have a choice?

With a record-setting, once-in-500-years drought (so bad it can clearly be seen from space) still underway, it may be time for California to embrace toilet water. Recycled toilet water, that is: completely clean, safe-to-drink water that just so happens to have already passed through the municipal supply. If it's good enough for astronauts to recycle urine and wastewater for reuse, it's good enough for Californians, right?

This idea is nothing new. For decades, such programs have been proposed and then shut down in collective cries of "yuck" across California municipalities. The exception is Orange County, which is currently looking to expand its system, which generates 7 million gallons of recycled water every day.

California has recently allocated $1 billion ($200 million outright, and $800 million more in low-interest loans) to get more recycled water into the drinking supply. Gov. Jerry Brown issued a rare signing statement when he signed into law a measure to explore statewide standards for wastewater management by 2016. "California needs more high-quality water, and recycling is key to getting there," he said. Just a few months after signing, in February, the main state water-distribution authority announced that it was turning off the tap to some rural communities due to low supplies. (Authorities are also worried about water theft.)

+ The latest drought conditions in California. (via U.S. Drought Monitor)

Despite the current enthusiasm, recent efforts to recycle potable water have been stifled. In 1997, San Diego proposed adding recycled water to its drinking supply, with a goal of providing 10 percent of the city's drinking water with recycled water by 2001. The city council scrapped the plan in 1999, amid public outcry. In 2004, 63 percent of San Diego water customers said they oppose water recycling.

Los Angeles, too, had recycled-water ambitions. In 2000, the city built a plant capable of providing 120,000 homes with recycled water. "The plan was abandoned after public outrage," the Los Angeles Times reports.

But the public sentiment is changing. In 2012, a poll found 73 percent of San Diegans said they'd favor adding recycled water to their supply, a big shift in less than a decade. But the city hasn't implemented a program yet. It does, however, recycle water for non-potable use.

The problem with recycled water is purely psychological. Despite the fact the water is safe and sterile, the "yuck factor" is hard to get over, even if a person understands that the water poses no harm. In one often-cited experiment, researchers poured clean apple juice into a clean bedpan, and asked participants if they'd be comfortable drinking the apple juice afterwards. Very few of the participants agreed, even though there was nothing wrong with it. It's forever associated with being "dirty," just like recycled wastewater.

But just as a bedpan can make a drink feel dirty, passing the liquid through something natural can make it feel pure again. "One way for water officials to promote this useful blind-spot is by interjecting an extra step or two into the water-recycling process, perhaps by incorporating a short stretch of river in the water recycling plant, or by injecting treated water into an aquifer," a 2004 feature by the American Psychological Association reads. That's what Orange County does. The wastewater they process is sent back into aquifers.

All municipalities have a way to process wastewater. Though most of the time, that water is put out to sea, or dumped in rivers. But it only takes a few extra steps to convert wastewater to drinking water. After going through the standard process (removing all solid components, skimming off oils, breaking down waste with microbes, sanitizing via UV light, adding chlorine), water destined to reenter the drinking supply goes through a process called reverse osmosis, in which no molecule that isn't pure H20 makes it through.

Though the thought of it may seem gross, such recycled water may prove essential in the coming years, as the climate grows more uncertain, and if California sees more sustained droughts. For now, that billion dollars will begin to circulate around the state, prompting water-recycling programs. Escondido, a city of 140,000 in northern San Diego county, has approved a $285 million plan to turn all of its sewage into irrigation water over the next 15 years.

After all, as an Escondido City council member told UT San Diego: "If we don't have water, we don't have any future."

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4889) }}