Americans Need to See the Clear Benefits of Water Reuse

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – June 15, 2012 – Comment

“OK…Let’s save the world from thirst.”

Did you know that there is a finite amount of water available on Earth, and currently an even more finite amount that we can readily use? Every time it rains, that is not new, extra water being introduced into the system – it’s actually the same water that’s been on Earth since the stone age. With this in mind, the implementation of water reuse offers an essential, viable and drought-proof solution for managing our limited natural resources, and a concept that more communities need to embrace.

Water reuse (or water recycling) is the reclamation, treatment and recycling of wastewater or storm water collected from homes, commercial buildings and industrial facilities. To help educate the public, the WateReuse Research Foundation recently released a compelling new seven minute video slideshow called Downstream, which provides a richly illustrated and easy-to-understand overview of the need for water reuse technology for a sustainable future. It’s an excellent presentation and highlights the value of the water we use every day.

Although there has recently been more conversation on the subject (including a humorous segment with actor Jack Black in the documentary Last Call At The Oasis, where our opening quote comes from), reuse water is mostly used for industrial and agricultural use and not used directly for drinking water, which accounts for only one percent of overall water consumption anyway. With 99 percent of water consumption being used for non-drinking purposes, you can get a good sense of the tremendous opportunity that lies in reusing water.

Water is reused in two main ways: direct reuse, which involves treating wastewater to a high level for agriculture and landscape irrigation, industrial use (such as cooling processes), toilet flushing and fire protection; and indirect reuse, which is treating wastewater to a high level and allowing it to percolate down to aquifers to replenish water sources. Direct reuse is already a widely accepted practice that will continue to grow, and indirect reuse is becoming an increasingly applied – and favored — method of reuse over discharging regularly treated wastewater into surface water, which ultimately evaporates or runs off into the ocean.

Since the vast majority of water goes toward industrial use or irrigation, using recycled water as an alternative supply for such applications has benefits that include:

  • Preserving existing supplies
  • Protecting the environment by decreasing the amount of treated wastewater discharged into bodies of water
  • Utilizing nutrients in the discharge as fertilizers in irrigation applications
  • Increasing economical long-term water management solutions and energy efficiency
  • Precluding the need to purchase from or draw upon new water sources

Recycling nearly two billion gallons of water annually, American Water  has a long history of designing, implementing and operating water reuse systems across the United States. But while the benefits of water reuse are clear, only a small percentage of American communities have implemented such systems and technologies. In order to get water reuse projects going on a large scale, communities need to prioritize the financing of wastewater infrastructure projects. Public-private partnerships, as well as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, offer solutions for funding such investments. Collaboration between wastewater and water agencies is also needed to set policies and develop system and facility plans that optimize water recycling opportunities. Community leaders must also perform public outreach to educate consumers about water reuse and mitigate any public safety and cost concerns.

There is a definite need to dramatically rethink our water usage, in both urban and agricultural environments. While water reuse cannot solve scarcity issues alone, it is an essential part of a sustainable approach toward water resource management.