Toilet-to-Tap Water: Beyond the Yuk Factor

If you’re real squeamish you may want to skip this article, or at least not read it during a meal. Yet more and more people are starting to accept that a reasonable solution to our diminishing water supplies may be to recycle and treat wastewater to a degree of purity that makes it drinkable.

It’s already being done in Orange County and various other parts of the country, including Wichita Falls and Big Spring in arid west Texas. Water districts in San Diego and the Santa Clara Valley have opened so-called toilet-to-tap demonstration plants whose spigots they hope eventually to open for general potable use. Also, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is looking to upgrade a water purification plant opened in the 1990s to potable standards. That was the original intent for the $55 million plant, but fervent public opposition limited reuse to irrigation and other non-potable uses.

Psychological resistance — the “yuk” factor – is the main reason some people for oppose these toilet-to-tap treatment facilities. As for health concerns, the technology is well established to purify even the dirtiest wastewater to drinking water standards. Astronauts that spend months aboard the International Space Station get their drinking water from recycling their own … well, I’ll just pass along a running joke among ISS astronauts that goes, “Yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”

Wastewater passing through the Orange County plant in Fountain Valley goes through several different stages of treatment. First, it is sent underground to be diluted and filtered by natural processes. Then it undergoes a microfiltration process that removes almost all solids and organisms. Then comes reverse osmosis, which forces water across a membrane to remove the smallest impurities, including viruses, dissolved minerals and chemicals. Finally, the water is zapped with ultraviolet light and mixed with a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to neutralize any remaining chemical residues, such as pharmaceuticals, small traces of which have been found in most municipal water.

In fact, water coming out of Orange County’s treatment plant has been shown to be among the cleanest anywhere in California – purer even than some brands of bottled water. It’s certainly a lot purer and tastier than any well water, which many Californians rely upon and which usually requires in-home treatment to be palatable.

Despite all the assurances, a recent study in a psychology journal found that 13% of American adults are absolutely against drinking recycled water. That number may diminish among Californians once the price tag and environmental consequences come in for building desalination plants and other extreme measures to cope with our present drought.