The world is undergoing a water crisis, and San Diego has certainly felt its effects. We import 90 percent of our water, most from the Colorado River and also from the Sacramento Delta, and both resources are strained and run the risk of drying up. The environment and the future generations of San Diego are demanding a solution to this water crisis — a solution which can be found in the “indirect potable reuse” of wastewater. Many San Diegans, however, have expressed disgust at the very idea; the concept of drinking our own waste does seem unthinkable at first. Opponents have even dubbed the plan “toilet to tap.” But the facts are clear. Purified wastewater is completely safe for drinking and has the potential to alleviate environmental strains and aid in reversing San Diego’s water crisis. Our city must take the initiative to preserve our natural environment as well as ensure that future generations are provided with ample supplies of drinking water.
The largest barrier to accepting the idea of treated wastewater is fear. People dislike the idea of drinking water that was once contaminated with fecal matter and fear possible consequences that may arise should bacteria, toxins, or other dangerous matter not be adequately removed from the treated wastewater. Their opinions are understandable but opposed by the plain facts surrounding wastewater purification.
The purification process begins with the water filtering through thousands of fibers with tiny holes by which suspended solids and bacteria are removed. The water then undergoes reverse osmosis, in which the water is forced through tubes filled with plastic membranes; this process treats the nonwater molecules, including viruses and pharmaceuticals. Bryan Walsh of Time magazine calls this step “particularly important” because “an Associated Press investigation earlier this year found trace amounts of prescription drugs in the drinking water of more than 40 million Americans.” Anything else that may remain in the water is taken care of when the water is finally treated with the disinfectant hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light. The finished product is clean, safe drinking water; Walsh and The New York Times writer Elizabeth Royte both testify to the treated water’s pure taste and quality.
In fact, according to James Crook, an environmental engineer on a scientific panel advising San Diego’s study of wastewater purification, the purified wastewater is “superior to your existing water supply” from the Colorado River and Sacramento Delta. People should remember that our current sources of drinking water are not completely uncontaminated to begin with either; discharge from sewage plants and farms upstream in areas such as Las Vegas find their way into the water.
Shane Snyder, a drinking water scientist of the Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that 10 percent of the Colorado River is treated sewage water and that 3 percent of the river is treated wastewater from Las Vegas. Snyder reminds us, “The people of San Diego are going to drink reused water one way or the other. Whether they control it or take it from current sources, it’s going to be there. I have no doubt that the systems that San Diego is considering and that Orange County uses are safe from a scientific perspective.”
The Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System that Snyder mentions is the largest and most high-tech wastewater purification system in the world. It was created in Orange County, California in 2008 and processes 70 million gallons a day — enough water for 500,000 people per year.