Recycled Sewage Water — Overcoming the ‘Yuck Factor’

January 3, 2024
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BookShelf: Recycled Sewage Water — Overcoming the ‘Yuck Factor’

“Purified: How Recycled Sewage Is Transforming Our Water”
By Peter Annin
Island Press, $28.00

Reviewed by Tom Henry

Image of Purified book cover

It’s often said that you can tell how an issue has hit the big time when it becomes fodder for late night television show comedians.

Such is the case for recycled sewage. As I’m writing this review, late night talk show host Stephen Colbert has coincidentally made Los Angeles a butt of jokes for its decision to invest more heavily in this emerging technology.

Ah, yes. The endless opportunities for toilet-to-tap water jokes, which author Peter Annin touches upon in his new book, “Purified: How Recycled Sewage Is Transforming Our Water.”

Annin shows how an issue that once sounded too gross to fathom — the “yuck” factor, as he calls it — has come full circle because of water shortages, climate change, unsustainable growth in the Sun Belt and other factors. It is now seen as a potential remedy for several water-stressed communities, or at least a viable option to work in tandem with other ideas.

There have been some bumps along the way, of course, including a 1990s uproar in San Diego. “Toilet to tap is hazardous to the political health of anyone who touches it,” one consultant warned years ago. “It is a politically — not scientifically — but a politically indefensible idea.”

But Annin, a one-time Newsweek correspondent now serving as director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, makes a case for how recycled wastewater is not only viable in terms of technology but is also a lot more practical than large-scale water diversions.


More of a PR problem than a scientific one

Annin covered the issue of diversions heavily in his first book, “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” which examined the perceived threat of diversions from the Great Lakes region.

Such fears became strong in 1998 after a Canadian firm called the Nova Group secured a permit to ship Lake Superior water to Asia. Though it later relinquished the permit, Great Lakes governors and premiers saw a need to close a loophole that could have made it possible.

They spent years developing a plan to stop bulk exports and large-scale diversions called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which Congress ratified and President George W. Bush signed into law in 2008.

Annin now writes in his latest book that the era of diversions is over — or at least should be over.


Purifying wastewater is now possible when used

in tandem with tools such as reverse osmosis,

a popular technology for desalinating water.


He shows how purified sewage water appears to be more of a public relations problem than a scientific or technical problem, given advances in water chemistry. He explains how purifying wastewater is now possible when used in tandem with tools such as reverse osmosis, one of the most popular — though expensive — technologies for desalinating water, too.

Drawbacks of reverse osmosis, though, are the large amounts of energy it needs and the briny byproduct it produces. As Annin points out, officials were surprised to learn that reverse osmosis — while filtering out almost everything — can’t remove acetone, an organic solvent. That, of course, raises questions about what else might not be removed.

But Annin shows how several communities have embraced the concept of recycling wastewater and how, in many cases, the concept isn’t as strange as it sounds.

Many communities prefer to treat the sewage effluent, then mix the purified water in an underground aquifer where it can be mixed and further diluted before it’s pulled out and used to make drinking water at a water treatment plant.

He also points out that the concept of injecting recycled sewage water into an aquifer isn’t all that much different than pulling raw water from the same river that upstream communities have used to discharge their sewage effluent. Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, Nashville, New Orleans, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., are among the cities that have done that for years.


A panacea for drinking water shortages?

But what about direct consumption of wastewater, without passing through an aquifer?

That’s happened. Two Texas cities — Big Spring and Wichita Falls — made history by becoming the first to send purified sewage water directly into their tap water without first passing through an environmental buffer.

“It should have created a stir, but didn’t,” Annin wrote. He quoted an official who said people were so desperate for water they worried more about running out of it than where it came from.

Annin provides a good overview of the local politics and perceptions that have been in play on this issue in several cities in Texas, such as Dallas, Houston and El Paso, as well as Tampa, Florida.

He writes about how Florida is a leader in what’s known as “purple pipe,” a term for treated, yet nonpotable, sewage water that’s used to irrigate golf courses, farms, firefighting and purposes other than tap water.

Purified sewage makes more sense in some areas than others, and Annin provides an optimistic tone about its potential as a panacea for drinking water shortages.

One of his sources in the book told him that many communities will discover that purified sewage can be a surprisingly cost-competitive water supply option.

“They’re going to look at it more and more,” his source predicted. “It is the future.”


‘The potable reuse era’

And that brings us back to Los Angeles, the city that Colbert was joking about. Annin said that Los Angeles has gone “all in” on purified sewage. “The magnitude of the push for potable water reuse in the LA metro is mind-blowing,” Annin wrote.

“In a nation where most people still have no concept that sewage can be safely purified into drinking water, all the key water agencies in Los Angeles are rushing to adopt potable water reuse as a major pillar of the regional supply,” he added. “The metro area that relied on controversial and environmentally damaging water diversions to survive the last century now sees similarly substantial investments in potable water recycling as the secret to surviving in this century.”

Years ago, few people would have predicted that potable water recycling “would one day be seen as the city’s savior,” Annin wrote. “But we’re in a new water generation now. … Call it the potable reuse era.”


Wastewater recycling is more than a novelty.

It is becoming a major public policy tool,

with Los Angeles leading the way.


So wastewater recycling is more than a novelty. It is becoming a major public policy tool, with Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest city — leading the way. As climate change bears down on us, Annin wrote, there’s a good chance this will be happening elsewhere.

The technology may be great fodder for late night comedians. But Annin raises some good points about it and offers some fascinating examples.

His book builds upon what one of the world’s best-known water scientists, Peter Gleick, wrote in his latest book, “The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future” (featured in a recent SEJournal BookShelf review).

Gleick uses the promise of potable water reuse to help promote his long-standing campaign for water as a humanitarian right. “We know how to clean up filthy, contaminated water. We know how to turn wastewater into clean, drinkable water. We know how to build dams for water storage or flood protection or hydropower. We’ve built machines to strip salt out of seawater and fresh water out of the atmosphere and launched other machines into outer space searching for water,” Gleick wrote.

But the world still has not succeeded “in providing everyone with even the most basic water services,” adding there are still nearly two million deaths a year from diseases associated with the lack of safe water and inadequate sanitation.

That makes “Purified” a good book for learning more about an emerging technology, as well as the value of communicating about it.

Tom Henry of The (Toledo) Blade is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Editorial Advisory Board.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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