As the cities in the arid Western United States face huge water shortages, officials and scientists are trying to convince the public that recycled wastewater can be clean and safe.
"Clearly, residents of San Diego would rather not drink their own wastewater. The first time the idea of it came up, about a decade ago, a public outcry forced city officials to back away, even though the effluent would have been heavily treated to make it safe to drink. When a similar plan resurfaced two years ago, the San Diego Union-Tribune editorialized that "your golden retriever may drink out of the toilet with no ill effects. But that doesn't mean humans should do the same." The plan came back a third time last fall, amidst a lingering drought, and although the city council finally passed it, Mayor Jerry Sanders vetoed what he derided as "toilet-to-tap" water recycling. If there's one word that sums up the popular view about drinking highly refined sewage it's this: yuck.
Yet San Diego, a growing city located in a dry desert climate, no longer can afford to be picky about where its tap water comes from. Already, the city pipes 90 percent of its drinking water from faraway sources in the Colorado River and from Northern California. Before long, those supplies will be cut under federal-state agreements to preserve wildlife habitat and satisfy neighboring states' claims to the Colorado. And other options, such as desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean, for now face technological, environmental and cost hurdles. So by a 5-to-3 margin, the San Diego city council last December overrode Sanders' veto. The city will conduct a pilot project to test the feasibility of pumping highly treated wastewater into one of the city's main drinking water reservoirs. As council President Scott Peters says, "We're not really in a position to turn our noses up at any potential source of water."
However reluctantly, San Diego is joining a small but growing number of drought-prone communities that are turning to a once-unthinkable option for drinking water. Just north of San Diego, in Orange County, a new $490 million plant can purify 70 million gallons of wastewater a day - highly treated effluent that eventually wends a course back to residents' faucets. South of Denver, Arapahoe and Douglas counties have broken ground on a similar project. Patrick Mulhern, director of the Cottonwood Water and Sanitation District, which serves part of Douglas County, thinks many more communities will take to drinking reclaimed wastewater. "In any of the arid states, it's getting to be the way to go."
Still, the idea suffers from an obvious public relations problem."