Friday, February 15, 2008

I. Toilet to Tap

comment on Facing the yuck factor. How has the west embraced water recycling? Very (gulp) cautiously. Peter Friederici. HCN p.10 September 17, 2007

Americans are different from most people on the planet. We have indoor plumbing and can turn on fresh, drinkable water any time we want. But the combination of the two may be our undoing. We don't pay a quarter of our salaries and spend hours waiting in line to get potable water, and maybe because of that we have abused our privilege. Now that the rivers are drying up in the West, cities are looking to new sources of fresh water. But where?

Ironically, "San Diego has both a water-supply and a water-disposal problem." Why not use the water in need of disposal as a new supply? Maybe because the slogan is "Toilet to tap"?? Sustainability advocates in Tucson (myself included), recently tried to pass a ballot initiative (Prop.200) with just such a slogan. Our reasoning: if Tucson doesn't want "toilet-to-tap" we had better start limiting growth now, before that's our only option. The opponents of the measure (ie proponents of growth such as developers) argued that Tucson would never need to divert wastewater into drinking water. But, just weeks after Prop.200 went down in flames (after mafia-style threats from the developers), amid reports of more drought, the Tucson papers began suggesting that perhaps Tucson really does need to start looking into the idea, after all.

Of course, all water is recycled eventually. Tucson is currently "recharging" its aquifer with wastewater. As the wastewater seeps through hundreds of feet of sand the hydrologists claim it will be cleaned enough to draw back up a well for drinking water. Las Vegas uses an even more direct filtration approach: "Los Vegas alone discharges roughly 60 billion gallons of wastewater a year some miles upstream of its own water intake -- a feat of urban engineering that would seem to prove that most of what happens in Vegas really does stay there."

All of which just points up the rationale San Diego used in its (failed) attempt to utilize wastewater: "We can have a lot more monitoring and control if we oversee our own reclamation than if we're relying on a river with a billion gallons of recharge [in the Colorado River] from other sources every day." Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. Just as no place is truly a wilderness "untrammeled by man" anymore, so too no source of "clear mountain springwater" is truly without some contamination, e.g. some "clear mountain streams" high in Colorado have enough man-made chemical estrogen mimics to feminize fish.

Friederici, a journalism professor, has written a great article that touches on some very deep issues in the interplay of science, technology, and society; E.g. the trust ordinary citizens place in their own biased perceptions versus the scientific analysis of professionals. The article suggests that that "perceptual shortfalls" in ordinary citizens might in fact be a reasonable, precautionary reaction to the belated discovery of the harms of rGBH in milk and endocrine disruptors in plastics. Without the ability to "see" contaminants that affect them ordinary people may have to rely on the history (story, narrative) of their water to determine quality rather than the quantitation (appeal to authority) of scientists.


A simple solution the article overlooked: *abandoning our water-treatment infrastructure* and giving in to the bottled water craze. This water crisis is caused by the average American household sending 150 gallons of fresh, drinkable water down the drain every day. If we could use untreated or sub-potable treated water for most domestic needs and bottled water for drinking and eating we would eliminate the source of the dilemma: overconsumption. However, if, in the end, the punishment for being spoiled Americans is drinking our own toilet water, perhaps there is some justice in this crazy universe after all.

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