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Practical Magic

Calls for better wastewater recycling grow louder

More than 30 states support programs related to water reclamation programs, and it's a notable part of the Biden administration's infrastructure proposals.

An urban wastewater treatment facility

Over the past week, my hometown in New Jersey has been deluged with inches of rain dragged up the U.S. east coast by Tropical Storm Elsa — flash flood warnings have been sounded on an almost daily occurrence, along with bubbling storm drains. Ironically, we’re also living with water irrigation restrictions that come down pretty much every summer regardless of the day-to-day forecast.

I’m loath to complain. As every weather-watching American knows, the drought across the west has reached extreme proportions — the two biggest reservoirs in the country, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, were almost two-thirds empty as of late June. We’ve got weeks more of summer, and almost half of the U.S. is way drier than usual.

Little wonder why calls for investments in water recycling technologies are growing louder, especially in western states.

Legislation proposed in late June by House of Representatives members from Arizona, California and Nevada would designate $750 million in federal grants to support water reclamation, reuse and storage projects in 17 Western states through 2027. The idea is to encourage more systems that process wastewater from sinks, toilets and showers and use it to help recharge depleted aquifers.

“Wastewater recycling is the type of innovation that we need to tackle this crisis, and it’s going to take a major investment,” said Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada, one of the Representatives who introduced the idea.  

The draft infrastructure funding bill released by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also underscores the importance of water recycling — it would put $1 billion toward reuse projects along with another $1.15 billion for more efficient water storage systems.

Wastewater reuse isn’t a new concept. If you check out the website for the year-old Water Reuse Action Plan (WRAP), you’ll find that more than 30 states support programs related to reclamation programs.

California has been particularly aggressive, obviously for good reason. Close to 40 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation in the state, for example, is recycled. Several cities in the southern part of the state have pioneered reuse, and an ambitious plan in Los Angeles calls for the city to recycle 100 percent of its wastewater by 2035, with the goal of serving 1 million households. And, as far as I can tell, the home of the largest commercial blackwater reuse project in the U.S. is still in San Francisco, at the Salesforce headquarters building.

But these examples are just a drop in the bucket when you consider the depth of the crisis. As I was mulling the solutions — and wondering why I haven’t heard about more of them — I was reminded of my interview a few weeks ago with Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental health advocate with the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. A champion of water recycling technologies, she’d like to see the concept of sewers eliminated. “If we can treat sewage to drinking water quality in outer space, why can’t we do that here on earth,” she mused during our conversation. Indeed. 

What corporate and municipal water recycling projects deserve more attention as examples of what we can emulate? Tip me at [email protected].

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