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Toilet-to-Tap: California Approves Converting Sewage Waste Into Drinking Water

Sewage will be used to hydrate the Golden State’s 39 million residents. 

A waste treatment plant in action. Shutterstock: ARHENDRIX.

On Tuesday morning, the Californian State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously in favor of direct potable reuse (DPR). Water agencies shall convert wastewater into drinking water before pumping it into homes, schools, offices and hospitals. The initiative is California’s latest attempt to combat multi-year droughts and rising temperatures in the Western United States. 

‘On top of helping us build drought-resilient water supplies, direct potable reuse offers energy savings and environmental benefits,’ claims Water Board Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel. ‘And most importantly, these regulations ensure that the water produced is not only safe but purer than many drinking water sources we now rely on.” 

According to the Water Board’s 63-page public notice, wastewater will pass through a three-stage treatment chain. ‘Advanced’ chemical reduction techniques like UV radiation, reverse osmosis, oxidation, ozonation and continuous blending will be applied. Pilot projects in Santa Clara, San Diego and Los Angeles encountered no major problems. 

California is not the first state to launch a DPR project. In October 2022, Colorado joined Ohio, New Mexico and South Carolina in okaying direct sewage reuse. The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s flashy 2023 Water Plan makes a bold pledge to restore ‘vibrant communities, robust agriculture [and] thriving watersheds.’ 

Lake Oroville, CA, during a drought. Credit: Shutterstock/ Stock For You.

Recent years have seen increasingly erratic weather patterns in the US. Nationwide, rainfall has become heavier and less frequent. The West, especially, swings from episodic flooding to lengthy droughts. In 2014, NASA’s Earth Conservatory recorded an all-time low in Lake Oroville’s depth. By 2017, the opposite was true. The California reservoir surged past capacity, local communities were evacuated, and water charged out into emergency spillways.  

Needless to say, rain has become an unstable resource.  

The Biden-Harris Administration’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad promises to make water supply safe, efficient and ‘climate-ready.’ This year, $2.2 million in federal funding was put towards water treatment research – $748,503 of which went to California alone.  

DPR is a relatively fast way of safeguarding water supply. Suitable facilities will take approximately 6-7 years to construct. ‘That’s actually a short timeline for developing a new water supply, much speedier than building a reservoir over 20-30 years,’ conservationist Kevin Ready told the Associated Press. ‘You’re looking at the long-term viewpoint.’ 

The central dilemma for California’s toilet-to-tap scheme is gaining popular support. It is hard to imagine the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills jumping for joy at the prospect of drinking former sewage. Just this January, a 7-million-gallon sewage spill shut down several South Californian beaches. As X-users have noted, the Water Board’s waste control prowess is a hard sell. 

Nonetheless, efforts are being made to boost public opinion. The California Institute for Water Resources runs the Water Talk podcast, broadcasting chats between residents, water supply workers and a team of scientist hosts. Likewise, WasteReuse California produces regular blog posts and newsletters in support of waste reuse. Its current newsletter announces the Student Water Reuse Art and Video Contest – an attempt to have budding artists design an educational YouTube short ‘highlighting the value of recycling water.’ 

The Office of Administrative Law is expected to confirm the California Water Board’s new policy in 2024. Once the toilet-to-tap scheme is finalized, regional water systems will be able to apply for individual permission to undertake DPR. 

Customers receiving DPR water will be notified by mail or direct delivery. Public health services will monitor whether related disease outbreaks occur. 

Written By

Penultimate-year undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, studying MA English and Modern History

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