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Earth Science Technology

California Gets Past the Yuck Factor With "Toilet To Tap" Water Recycling 278

HughPickens.com writes: From a marketing point of view, using treated sewage to create drinking water is a proposition that has proved difficult to sell to customers. Now John Schwartz writes in the NYT that as California scrambles for ways to cope with its crippling drought and the mandatory water restrictions imposed last month by Gov. Jerry Brown, enticing people to drink recycled water is requiring California residents to get past what experts call the "yuck" factor. Efforts in the 1990s to develop water reuse in San Diego and Los Angeles were beaten back by activists who denounced what they called, devastatingly, "toilet to tap." Orange County swung people to the idea of drinking recycled water with a special purification plant which has been operating since 2008 avoiding a backlash with a massive public relations campaign that involved more than 2,000 community presentations. The county does not run its purified water directly into drinking water treatment plants; instead, it sends the water underground to replenish the area's aquifers and to be diluted by the natural water supply. This environmental buffer seems to provide an emotional buffer for consumers as well.

In 2000, Los Angeles actually completed a sewage reclamation plant capable of providing water to 120,000 homes — the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys.The plan was abandoned after public outrage. Angelenos, it seemed, were too good to drink perfectly safe recycled water — dismissed as "toilet to tap." But Los Angeles is ready to try again, with plans to provide a quarter of the city's needs by 2024 with recycled water and captured storm water routed through aquifers. "The difference between this and 2000 is everyone wants this to happen," says Marty Adams. The inevitable squeamishness over drinking water that was once waste ignores a fundamental fact, says George Tchobanoglous: "When it comes down to it, water is water. Everyone who lives downstream on a river is drinking recycled water."
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California Gets Past the Yuck Factor With "Toilet To Tap" Water Recycling

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  • God damned pussies.

    Leaders are -- occasionally -- supposed to actually lead. And that means pushing through unpopular items that are actually good for the citizenry.

    • Indeed. And for those who cannot cope with this idea, I say in the tradition of Rousseau: "Let them drink bottled water". By all means offer them a choice, but at their expense.
      • By all means offer them a choice, but at their expense.

        And while we're at it, make sure the externalities of bottling are fully priced in. As a race, we already use and throw away too many plastic bottles.

        And if you want to have some good troll-face fun, make sure you're just bottling toilet-to-tap water.

    • Like tell the 70+% users of water in CA to tone it down?

      Unpossible.

      • by Noah Haders ( 3621429 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:47AM (#49673723)

        here's the problem with targeting the 70+% users. did you know that only 20% of water in CA goes to residential, commercial and industrial sources? 80% of water is used by agriculture, who has powerful lobbies and locks on several state senators and assemblymen. Did you know that in CA some farmers grow rice? Some grow parsley, which is almost as water intensive as rice and is bundled up as hay and sent off to china to feed Chinese cows? And despite this, farmers are a third rail of water politics, and instead people are putting flyers on MY door encouraging me to "minimize toilet flushing" and now to drink pee water. No thanks.

        • Yes, I know that is exactly the problem.

          Also, the solution.

        • Just had a thought...Assuming agriculture has complete domain over the water on their land only, if residential, etc users end up with a 100% sustainable system from reprocessing, conservation and non farm sources, agriculture users can go fuck themselves when their wells dry up! Sure the price of food will double for a generation while everything gets resorted but hey, that's way easier than addressing the issue ahead of time.

    • Is this just California. I was under the impression that this was a common method of water useage and treatment?

      For nearly every city with municipal water they have a rather large water treatment plant, and a sewer system that seems connected to it.

      • by plopez ( 54068 )

        Yep, except instead of an aquifer you use rivers. As in "upstream human and agricultural waste goes into a river and then it enters a waste water treatment plant". You are merely replacing "river" with "aquifer". By the way, I find agricultural chemicals to be more of a concern in my mind.

      • That's what I thought too. My toilet bowl drains into the same sewer pipe my kitchen sink and shower drain does, and my toilet tank is filled from the same water line as my kitchen faucet and shower head. I thought maybe socal kept separate water lines or something until reading further below.
    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      With democracy and a basically stupid and anti-science population, this type of leadership is not possible anymore. Politicians have to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to get elected.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        >> democracy and a basically stupid and anti-science population

        I agree, but if you ever try to advocate for democracy participation qualifiers to weed out the stupid (e.g., high school graduate, X years of work experience, at least XX years old, living independently, having your own ID, passing some kind of literacy test) and all you'll hear is "racist", "elitist" and stories about poll taxes.

        • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

          if you ever try to advocate for democracy participation qualifiers to weed out the stupid (e.g., high school graduate, X years of work experience, at least XX years old, living independently, having your own ID, passing some kind of literacy test) and all you'll hear is "racist", "elitist" and stories about poll taxes.

          None of the things you listed are correlated with "non-stupid". If you think IQ and education mean non-stupid political views, you should go discuss politics with some university professors.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jellomizer ( 103300 )

      Good leaders get kick out of office.
      Why?
      They try to force change, people don't like change.
      They will bend the rules to get their way, this can cross the line into corruption.
      They will step on their opponents, this will toughen the resolve of their opponents so they will be stronger next time around.
      The realize the popular opinion, is based on assumptions made by a population with partial insight into the issue, and that 50% of the population has below average intelligence to really fully understand it.

      Bad l

      • by Nutria ( 679911 )

        A good leader will convince the populace that what they think is a bad idea is actually a good idea.

        That's how he pushes through unpopular ideas.

        • by plopez ( 54068 )

          And make them believe it was *their* idea in the first place.

        • Also,

          A bad leader will convince the populace that what is a bad idea is actually a good idea.

          The problem is, nobody wants to evaluate ideas on their own merit, they want others to tell us what to think.

          I have no issue with drinking recycled water, because I was taught about the great water cycle in grade school. Its all recycled water at this point. The fact that people have irrational feelings about it is besides the point.

    • God damned pussies.

      Leaders are -- occasionally -- supposed to actually lead. And that means pushing through unpopular items that are actually good for the citizenry.

      Or they just split the water into drinking water and farming water. Why did people have to drink bleeched pee just so almond farmers can water with pure drinking water?

      • by Nutria ( 679911 )

        Why did people have to drink bleeched pee just so almond farmers can water with pure drinking water?

        You're one of those anti-science idiots like who torpedoed water recycling 15 years ago.

    • Leading is best when the leader convinces people to do things willingly.
    • Except that there's about a million other things they can use the processed toilet water for... Use the water from the aquifers for drinking, and use the processed water for irrigation, cooling, etc. The amount of water they are going to save by doing this still doesn't get them anywhere near being neutral. This is a silly thing to do.
      • by Nutria ( 679911 )

        Sigh.

        Do you not realize that:
        (1) Municipal sewerage systems are *not* allowed to dump "black water" into rivers & lakes? Los Angeles is no different.
        (2) Municipal water supplies all across the country have been processing nasty river water for 100 years?

        (We live at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and get our drinking water from there. What comes out of the tap is... clean.)

  • by kimvette ( 919543 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:15AM (#49673387) Homepage Journal

    "Hm that's a good point, let me think for a bit
    Oh wait, my mistake, it's absolute bullshit.
    Science adjusts it's beliefs based on what's observed
    Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved.
    If you show me
    That, say, homeopathy works,
    Then I will change my mind
    I'll spin on a fucking dime
    I'll be embarrassed as hell,
    But I will run through the streets yelling
    It's a miracle! Take physics and bin it!
    Water has memory!
    And while it's memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is Infinite
    It somehow forgets all the poo it's had in it!" --Tim Minchin

    • I think homeopathy is bullshit, but it's nonsense to think that they don't think that the imprint of whatever minuscule thing was waved over the water wears off. Homeopathic "cures" typically have expiration dates. If they lasted forever, why would you ever buy more?

    • Modded down? How can anyone think that post is serious? The whole point of Tim Minchin's "Storm" is that homeopathy is total bullshit and people who ignore science are absolute morons. It's called "sarcasm."

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

      • by GlennC ( 96879 )

        How can anyone think that post is serious?

        Welcome to the Internet, where the unbelievable is often mistaken for the gospel truth.

  • NASA has been doing this for a while... I remember when they announced it as "yesterday's coffee is now today's coffee"... everybody thought it was witty and cool. I guess Californians don't make good astronauts.

  • by Sir_Eptishous ( 873977 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:19AM (#49673429) Homepage
    My experience in living in places with "bad water"(wells with ultra high mineral content) and visiting people who live in those types of places(Phoenix...) has shown me that people will either buy five gallon plastic jugs of water at the grocery store or get their drinking water delivered somehow from a "reputable source".

    Of course there will also be those who invest in high end in-place water filtering systems.

    Human behavior dictates that no one with the financial ability will knowingly drink recycled sewage. I see a boom market for water distributors of all flavors.

    With that being said I applaud the efforts in So-Cal to be better users of their precious little water.
    Let us raise our glass and give a cheer!
    • Stop calling it recycled sewage. It's recycled water. And everyone drinks it.

      As this page [wte-ltd.co.uk] eloquently explains (or you can go to the Wikipedia page [wikipedia.org] to get a lot more details), the wastewater that flows out of your house goes to a water treatment plant where it goes through four stages:

      1) Pre-Treatment - large objects (tampons, leaves, wet wipes, etc.) are removed
      2) Primary Treatment - fat & grease is removed; organic solids are removed
      3) Secondary Treatment - remaining organic matter is broken down

    • My experience in living in places with "bad water"(wells with ultra high mineral content) and visiting people who live in those types of places(Phoenix...) has shown me that people will either buy five gallon plastic jugs of water at the grocery store or get their drinking water delivered somehow from a "reputable source".

      Of course there will also be those who invest in high end in-place water filtering systems.

      Human behavior dictates that no one with the financial ability will knowingly drink recycled sewage. I see a boom market for water distributors of all flavors.

      I'm not so sure. You're conflating taste with stigma. If the water tastes gross then it tastes bad every time you drink it so of course a lot of people are going to buy better tasting water.

      But if it's just some stigma over the fact that the water cycle is slightly easier to track then that's something people will get over within 5 minutes of the changeover. I live in a major prairie city, I've always assumed the water was "Toilet To Tap" and the idea never bothered me in the slightest.

      People still swim in

    • by lpevey ( 115393 )

      Millions of people across the country drink recycled sewage every day. That's the nature of water--it just gets recycled.

      Maybe I just find this odd because I was always under the impression that every city did it this way. When I was little, one of my uncles worked at the waste water treatment plant in a small city on a small river in the middle of the country. I thought it was common knowledge that the water flowing in the water treatment plant (for city taps) came from the river, and the water flowing

      • Are there any cities that truly have a landfill of sorts for treated sewage water? A place where it can go that it will not end up back in the drinking water cities? Because I think that is what would be extremely rare.

        It's called the ocean. Coastal cities often place the out fall from their waste treatment plants in the ocean or a convenient bay. As there is no one downstream of them they either have to add the treated water directly to their potable water system, or pump it back uphill into tower aquifers.

  • Why would anyone pooh-pooh the idea?

  • Viri: good luck removing it.

  • I kind of just always assumed that treated water was put back in the reservoirs anyway. I mean, it has been TREATED right? Wouldn't that make it cleaner than most lake water anyway?

    • Yeah, the water in our reservoirs is pretty skanky, filled with algae, fish pee, and critters, yet the water coming out of my tap is perfectly clear and safe. I find it hard to believe treated sewage water is dirtier than lake and river water.
  • by mr_mischief ( 456295 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:28AM (#49673527) Journal

    In the Midwest it's common for a city or town to draw from the nearby major rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, Des Moines, and Ohio then treat that water for the tap. Then they take the sewage, separate out the solids, treat the liquids, and release that downstream.

    I'm not sure I'd bitch so much about drinking what my own city or county was purifying on both ends. In the Midwest people are drinking what's been treated for drinking by their city, town, county, or water district but which was treated as wastewater by whoever was upstream. In the spring, sometimes the sewage treatment plants upstream flood. (A few cities and towns even continue to get fines from the EPA for their stormwater and sewage drains combined, so that flash flooding brings sewage up into their own streets.)

    It's worked for decades elsewhere to re-treat wastewater as drinking water. California's supposed to be the progressive leader on this sort of thing. It's time they caught up.

  • The yuck factor is childishness. If the water is safe then the water is safe.

    One of the things I've been looking at are things like pee-ponics and similar very short cycle waste processing systems. It sounds gross, but most of the grossness is just a bacteria issue. I saw someone pushing a solar toliet that subjects the poop to a couple thousand degrees of temperature and basically kicks out desiccated charcoal. That charcoal could be ground up and added to fertilizer. No poop smell because the bacteria are

    • The yuck factor is childishness. If the water is safe then the water is safe.

      Now, prove that its safe.

      The problem is if they say "absent proof this is dangerous, we'll assume it's safe".

      And, I'm sorry, but in a context where to can be guaranteed human pathogens and disease will be present, you need much more proof that it's safe.

      So, yes, if it's safe that's great. But can they prove it's safe? Or are they inferring it is?

      • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:56AM (#49673849)

        What would you consider proof?

        I'm always baffled by people that ask for proof on things without bothering to state what they would consider valid evidence. I'm sure I could get you a report from some scientists and engineers that said it was safe. But I'm rather certain you wouldn't accept that as evidence.

        Which means I'm somewhat at a loss as to what you even mean when you ask for proof? Theoretically, what could I possibly say or post or provide that you would accept and then say "okay, I accept it is safe"?

        As to proving safety versus inferring it... that is a good point, however, I'll point out that if they're wrong millions of people are going to get very sick very quickly.

        So I frankly doubt they're cutting too many corners with the safety because if they do... politicians might literally go to jail. Which is normally almost impossible.

      • Somehow river water supplies get rotavirus in it, and the treatments in use don't seem to remove it completely.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R... [wikipedia.org]

        Excerpt from that article:
        "Rotaviruses are stable in the environment and have been found in estuary samples at levels up to 1â"5 infectious particles per US gallon, the viruses survive between 9 and 19 days.[23] Sanitary measures adequate for eliminating bacteria and parasites seem to be ineffective in control of rotavirus, as the incidence of rotavirus infecti

        • You're assuming that rotavirus is immortal or something. If the existing practices for water sanitation are insufficient to kill it, then clearly those need to be looked at so it is killed.

          We already put a certain amount of chlorine in our water. Does your water recycling concept take that into consideration? There are other things... a fine filter would remove the virus. Those are expensive but maybe that's just a requirement?

          Also you can look at UV treatment... that works sometimes... I'd say boil it, bu

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:51AM (#49673793) Journal
      The one nasty trick, even with residential effluent; but especially if commercial/industrial gets mixed in thanks to antiquated, defective, or illicit sewer piping; is that sewage is only mostly dangerous because of the bacteria.

      Drugs of various sorts show up in residential sewage all the time, and have widely varying resistance to breakdown by low cost measures(if you throw enough resources at a chemist just about anything can be separated out, right down to isotopes; but if you can't biodegrade it, destroy it with UV exposure of modest intensity and duration, settle it out with flocculants, or similar cheap bulk methods, the cost will be high enough to be dubiously relevant to water treatment even in the first world); heavy metals show up from time to time and don't do much degrading at all, nasty persistent organic compounds are always a possibility. People just dump all kinds of ghastly stuff down the drain.

      There is a certain...history... associated with people trying to dispose of the byproducts of sewage treatment, where most of these goodies end up, by means cheaper than landfilling. The current strategy involves re-branding them as 'biosolids', composting them long enough that the bacterial pathogens are (mostly) weeded out, and then trying to find suckers willing to use them as fertilizer.

      It's too bad, really. If it were just shit, moderately competent composting practices would turn it quite readily into a safe, useful, soil additive. Dealing with the modest; but very much nonzero, levels of heavy metals and persistent organic compounds has proven to be really hairy.
      • That is a good point about drugs or various industrial chemicals getting in there.

        I'm not entirely sure how you process all that out. One would assume and hope that they have some quality control system monitoring what is actually in the water.

        You might be right that that is just a general deal killer. The toxic chemicals is something you could deal with pretty easily. You just track toxins in the water and try to follow them back to the source. Then you fine the shit out of the company and shunt future tox

        • I don't know the details of proposed and actual treatment mechanisms for non-pathogen problems (though here [epa.gov] is an outline of the regulations surrounding levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, and zinc permitted in the US. Regulation of organic pollutants and hydrocarbon levels were considered; but dropped and don't currently apply); but my understanding is that 'composting' on a wastewater treatment scale is not much like what people do in their back gardens, and is generally d
          • As to composting human waste, I've seen facilities that do it... easily the most horrifying smell you can imagine. Seriously unbearable.

            As to pig toilets... gross. My ancestors for better or worse never used those. Not that they were paragons of health or anything... that particular method of being disgusting never caught on.

  • "...using treated sewage to create drinking water is a proposition that has proved difficult for customers to swallow."

  • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:31AM (#49673561)

    For years there have been reports of trace amounts of drugs in treated wastewater that could be harming wildlife and "no one seems to know which compounds need to be removed or how to remove them from the water safely", so are they filtering out these drugs before reusing the water for drinking water?

    http://www.scientificamerican.... [scientificamerican.com]

    Aga said even without knowing exact impacts, consistently seeing antibiotics show up in effluent is concerning.

    “Even at low levels you don’t want to have people ingest antibiotics regularly because it will promote resistance,” she said.

    http://www.newrepublic.com/art... [newrepublic.com]

    It looked at samples from 50 large-size wastewater treatment plants nationwide and tested for 56 drugs including oxycodone, high-blood pressure medications, and over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and ibuprofen. More than half the samples tested positive for at least 25 of the drugs monitored, the study said. High blood pressure medications appeared in the highest concentrations and most frequently.

    • by hawkbug ( 94280 )

      That is also my main concern, primarily revolving around hormones. You always hear about various hormones seeping into waste water and affecting wildlife. The other pharmaceuticals are even more dangerous as you mentioned.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:33AM (#49673587) Journal
    Desalination is still expensive and thirst can be very, very, motivational. That, and thanks to their totally fucked water rights distribution, California will probably still be exporting alfalfa and bottled water as they are installing deathstills to reclaim the body's water of the dead.
  • and to be diluted by the natural water supply

    You have that backwards. What they pump in the ground is more pure than what's already there. It's reverse osmosis water, and far, far cleaner than what comes out of the tap. (And the plant is a technological marvel.)

    • Most people don't know what that but you are 100% correct.

      I do 2 things to earn a living. I'm an IT Consultant and I operate a maple farm. We use Reverse Osmosis to separate most of the water from the maple sugar crystals. For me, pure water is the waste and the rest is my base product that I boil later.

      My small RO machine can produce around 800 gallons of pure water in an hour depending on the pressure I apply on the membrane. With a properly maintained membrane, only H2O is produced, no viruses, no ba

  • by thogard ( 43403 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:42AM (#49673681) Homepage

    This works so well on cruise ships as hardly anyone ever gets sick on those. A tiny hole in a filter membrane is huge to bactera and viruses.

    Lots of people are worried about bacteria but 99% of the bacteria on the planet doesn't like humans and is safe to consume. The bacteria that lives with humans or comes out of humans is what will kill people.

    Then there are prions which will pass through these filters which is why the systems that don't concentrate diseases always have a large natural buffer that is full of creatures that mess with whatever manages to get pass the sewage treatment systems. The places that are talking about bypassing a large natural reserve is asking for trouble. A large lake or a river have plenty of life that will kill off most of the nasty things but if that cycle is short circuted, there are plenty of things that survie in fairly pure water for days or weeks.

    With the cost of deslinating water, it makes more sense to use ocean water than water with too high of human waste and the health risks are far lower as well.

  • ... which is mostly what you get on the Caribbean islands. In fact I prefer distilled after I have been soaking in salt water in my wetsuit for five or six hours per day. So the question is, How purified is "recycled"? If someone can make the seawater off Grand Cayman drinkable . . .
  • by PvtVoid ( 1252388 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @10:47AM (#49673731)

    "Water? You mean like from the toilet?"

  • California, your fucked up agricultural water rights system is making you drink your own pee. Enjoy.
  • WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Errol backfiring ( 1280012 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2015 @11:01AM (#49673931) Journal
    Sorry, but why do you shit in drinking water to begin with? Just use a compost toilet. The composting process kills almost every known disease, and if it is your own toilet, you know what diseases went in, so you know what can come out (it probably won't, and if it does, your body has learned to cope with it). It's literally dirt cheap, low-tech, and can be implemented almost anywhere. And you get better compost as well. See the Humanure Handbook [humanurehandbook.com] for all the details.
    • by itzly ( 3699663 )

      What are you going to do with all the shitty compost when you live in a city apartment ?

  • and humans drink recycled sewage water.

    Stop big Ag subsidies and archaic water rights.

  • When I grew up in Colorado Alamosa disposed of treated sewage into the Arkansas River. Pueblo used Arkansas River water, treated it, and sent it right back into the river. La Junta took its water from the Arkansas, treated it and used it. It then treated the sewage and put it back into the river. Everyone seemed aware and untroubled by this simple fact: Everyone downstream from at least Alamosa was drinking some treated sewage and nobody bought bottled water.

    Standard bathroom graffiti in Alamosa read "Flush

  • I'm reminded of nuclear power plants: everything is great when brand-new; everything functions, maintenance is top-notch and top-priority.

    But in the fullness of time (and the penny-pinching greed of both privately and publicly-held entities), along with all too human facets of complacency and sloth... that is when the shit comes down. In this case, more than just figuratively.

Leveraging always beats prototyping.

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