Last year, California saw half a million acres of farmland grow fallow, and more than 1200 wells run dry. The state also saw more than 7,660 wildfires and enacted mandatory water laws. In 2023, powerful storms ended California’s three-year drought, yet officials anticipate new challenges. Officials note the cyclical nature of droughts, highlighting the reliability of using purified wastewater as a crucial strategy to decrease the state’s dependence on imported water.
Coming soon to a tap near you, California will recycle sewage and toilet water, perfect for drinking and showering.
In the 1990s, when the proposal surfaced, critics opposed the concept and mockingly termed it “toilet-to-tap.” But desperate times call for desperate measures, and California officials have now unanimously approved new regulations permitting water suppliers to recycle sewage waste from showers and toilets for drinking water.
In 2023, powerful storms ended California’s three-year drought, yet officials anticipate new challenges. Officials note the cyclical nature of droughts, highlighting the reliability of wastewater as a reliable resource and emphasizing its use as a crucial strategy to decrease the state’s dependence on imported water.
Per updated regulations, wastewater will undergo thorough treatment to remove all pathogens and viruses as it passes through reverse-osmosis membranes and activated carbon filters. The recycled water will then undergo additional treatment, including UV light disinfection.
Officials have outlined a three-tiered treatment approach to purify wastewater, guaranteeing it adheres to drinking water standards. According to Darrin Polhemus, the Director of the Division of Drinking Water at the State Water Resources Control Board, even if one level of treatment were to fail, two additional layers would serve as backups, ensuring that no untreated water enters the system.
Polhemus assured state residents that the finished product would be the “highest quality water” in the state, emphasizing that it would be purer than what many Californians currently drink from their taps.
Reverse osmosis (RO), the process the new facilities will use to purify the water, is not new. Residential users commonly use RO systems to purify tap water, and the hospitality industry uses the technology to meet stringent water quality standards for food and beverage preparation.
Industries with demanding water purity requirements, such as pharmaceutical manufacturers and laboratories, use reverse osmosis in their processes. Desalination plants also use reverse osmosis to convert seawater into freshwater, and agricultural operations may tap into RO for large-scale irrigation to protect crops from contaminants.
California is not the first state to encourage its residents to drink purified sewage. Colorado led the charge last year, and Arizona and Florida are moving to pass regulations to follow suit.
But despite the widespread use of reverse osmosis, some Californians are concerned about drinking toilet water. One resident told a local TV station, “From wastewater to drinking water sounds a little gross.”
State officials are quelling fears by reminding residents, “Anyone out there taking drinking water downstream from a wastewater treatment plant discharge – which, I promise you, you’re all doing – is already drinking toilet to tap.”
Water recycling projects are shockingly expensive, but federal funding is accessible. The Environmental Protection Agency provides low-cost loans for these projects, which include recycling initiatives. The Infrastructure Law has allocated over $1 billion over the next five years for non-federal water recycling projects through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s water recycling programs.
Officials estimate the new facilities will take six to seven years to build. While Californians will have to wait several years to enjoy their toilet-to-tap drinking water, the timeline is far shorter than constructing new reservoirs, which can take two to three decades.
The new regulations must be submitted to the state’s Office of Administrative Law. Local water agencies must then decide on implementation in their respective cities. Polhemus stresses the importance of a public process, education, and community consent before any regulation is adopted, meaning Californians won’t be sipping toilet water soon.
While the process sounds unappealing, it is a tried and true solution to the state’s ongoing water shortages. It’s hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi or any elite celebrity sipping toilet water, but if it’s good enough for our dogs, it’s good enough for them.