Water conservation is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to embrace water reuse to ensure supply is resilient to climate change, population growth and economic growth.
Everyone recognizes that water is necessary for every living being to survive, but we may not always fully appreciate how water drives our economy — or how the lack of water when and where we need it could dramatically disrupt our economic well-being and quality of life. Water for drinking is just the beginning. We also need water to produce our food, to generate power and to manufacture products that we rely on every day.
Severe water scarcity is the new norm for communities in California, Texas and many other regions throughout the nation and around the world. Even with a strong water conservation and efficiency program, traditional water sources may not meet and sustain the growing needs of a community. Changes in climate, combined with growing populations and economies, mean that we cannot discharge our water back into the environment after just one use. Once we withdraw it from nature, we must make the most of it and use it multiple times.
Thankfully, scientifically proven advanced technology allows us to speed up what the environment already does — recycle water again and again. And in many cases, technology can purify water better than nature. Communities that embrace this innovative technology can create a safe, reliable, locally controlled supply of water for many different purposes — including industrial, irrigation and drinking. The water is treated differently depending upon the source and use of the water and how it gets delivered.
Recent headlines would lead one to believe that water reuse is something new. It is not. Water reuse happens daily on rivers and other water bodies everywhere. If you live in a community downstream of another, chances are you are reusing its water. There are examples of communities that have safely implemented planned recycled water projects for many years. Los Angeles County’s sanitation districts have provided recycled water for landscape irrigation in parks and golf courses since 1929, a reclaimed water facility was built at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1932, and Fairfax County, Virginia has used recycled water for drinking since 1978.
Despite the documented success with reuse, the amount of water intentionally reused in the United States is still quite low. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 33 billion gallons of municipal wastewater is produced every day in the United States, but less than 10 percent of that is intentionally reused. Retaining that water within the supply cycle would go a long way toward addressing chronic water shortages and building a more resilient water supply.
One key reason water reuse is not a bigger part of the nation’s water supply is that reuse is still characterized as a waste product in most places. Recently, WateReuse assisted GE with updating a white paper that summarizes various education and outreach efforts, barriers and incentives to implementation, and mandates and regulations from around the world. This document, Addressing Water Scarcity Through Recycling and Reuse: A Menu for Policymakers, provides a comprehensive compendium of model international, federal, state and local programs encompassing water reuse. The examples include programs that focus on engaging the public on the value of water and involving them early in project development to ensure community support and buy-in. The report also demonstrates local commitments to incentivize project implementation to ensure the right water is used for the right use or state and regional efforts to help offset project costs to help further development of alternative water supplies. Finally, the report highlights some efforts that have actually created barriers to reuse implementation.
Americans have embraced “sustainability” in so many aspects of modern life, but not necessarily when it comes to water resources. We cannot think of water reuse as an emergency measure in times of drought. We diversify our retirement investments, and we must also diversify our water future to create supplies that are resilient to climate change, population growth and changes in the economy.
Conservation is essential, but not enough; water reuse needs to be part of the water supply portfolio of every community. Seminars such as the GE/Wharton School event on The Economic Power of Water, and events hosted by WateReuse and others are essential to sharing information to a broader audience in order to garner support.
Our water future is important enough that the collective commitment of water professionals, policymakers and our communities is imperative. The good news is that safe and proven technologies now exist that allow us to treat water from virtually any source to create new supplies for everything from industry to irrigation to drinking water. This means that the concept of wastewater has become obsolete. It is no longer appropriate to wastefully discharge large volumes of water that can be reused for the benefit of all.
We have learned that there is just one water — and that one water is the right water because we have the ability to treat it to meet any possible need.
(Top image: Courtesy of DavidGreitzer, iStock Editorial)
Melissa Meeker is Executive Director of the WateReuse Association and Research Foundation. With more than 20 years’ experience in both the public and private sectors, Meeker is a seasoned water executive with a range of expertise that includes regulatory issues, policy development and executive management.