Making wastewater potable: feasible, but getting over the yuck factor is tough

January 22, 2012 12:00 am

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Used to be you could flush it and forget about it, but not anymore.

Advances in wastewater treatment technology and design make it possible to convert sewage wastewater to potable water and a variety of other more palatable uses, according to a report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies.

The study, released earlier this month, said the ability to reuse "reclaimed water" for drinking supplies, irrigation, recreational and industrial purposes, and well as to replenish depleted aquifers and surface water, could play a significant role in meeting future water supply needs, especially in coastal areas facing fresh water shortages.

In addition, the study's analysis of advanced treatment processes, including reverse osmosis filtration, carbon absorption and oxidation, found that health risks from exposure to chemical contaminants and disease-causing microbes in the reclaimed water do not exceed and in some cases may be lower than in existing water supplies.

"Wastewater reuse is poised to become a legitimate part of the nation's water supply portfolio given recent improvements to treatment processes," said R. Rhodes Trussell, president of Trussell Technologies in California and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Although reuse is not a panacea, wastewater discharged to the environment is of such quality that it could measurably complement water from other sources and management strategies."

But making nature's water cycle much more personal by piping reclaimed water directly to the water tap is highly unlikely in southwestern Pennsylvania, where water is abundant and relatively clean, said Stanley States, water quality manager with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which draws water from the Allegheny River for its 400,000 customers.

"Pittsburgh is blessed. We have lots of water and it's good quality," Mr. States said. "There isn't any reclamation done here and it doesn't need to be."

He said reclaimed wastewater is used now for irrigation in California, to water golf courses in Florida and for snow-making by Seven Springs, the ski resort in the Laurel Highlands. Other ski resorts in California, Arizona and around Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border also make snow with reclaimed water.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.
First Published 2012-02-09 19:59:08
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