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Science & Environment

California Aims To Get Past The Yuck Factor Of Recycled Wastewater


So this has been one dry winter for many of you living in the Western United States. So dry, in fact, that some are worried about a prolonged drought. Today California's water board is considering not just bringing back water restrictions, but making them permanent. Meanwhile, water agencies are looking for new sources of water, and NPR's Nathan Rott tells us about one big potential source. If, that is, people are willing to accept it.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The industry-preferred term for the water source is potable reuse. In plain speak, it means recycling our wastewater for drinking. So, yeah, it's a bit of a hard sell. That's why the Orange County Water District in Southern California is doing what even they say is a bit of a publicity stunt.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Ten, nine, eight...

ROTT: They're trying to set a world record for the most recycled wastewater in 24 hours, a record that nobody else has attempted to set.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Two, one. (Clapping).

ROTT: Mike Markus is the general manager of the Orange County Water District, owner of this facility.

MIKE MARKUS: Which is the world's largest potable reuse project.

ROTT: It takes treated water originally collected from gutters and sidewalks, showers and sinks, and it puts it through a purifying process.

MARKUS: By the time it's gone through that three-step process, we basically have distilled water.

ROTT: Enough for 850,000 people a year.

MARKUS: We can't rely on Mother Nature to fill up our groundwater basin, and that's why we've turned to recycled water. What it's done is it's given us water supply reliability for the region.

TIMOTHY QUINN: Recycled water is and will remain California's single largest source of new water supplies as we move forward in the 21st century.

ROTT: Timothy Quinn heads the Association of California Water Agencies, and he says more and more agencies are looking towards potable reuse as a water source, drawn by that reliability.

QUINN: This is a central strategy to drought-proofing modern urban economies.

ROTT: But the agencies need public buy-in, and in the past, getting it has been messy. Earlier wastewater recycling projects have been sunk, torpedoed, some of the water agencies say, by the use of a single phrase.

QUINN: I'm not going to use any of the offensive phrases from the past, but...

ROTT: The phrase is toilet to tap. And, you've got to admit, it's kind of catchy. Quinn and Markus, though, are quick to point out that it's not entirely accurate. The water is coming from many places, and it exceeds every single health standard by the time it would reach somebody's home. The Orange County Water District is using the hashtag #GetOverIt. And, if you ask Quinn or Markus, they'd both tell you that they think people are over it, that they're willing to embrace the technology as a main water source. So we decided to ask, at a grocery store in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood.

AYAKO ZABALAGA: It's pretty gross.

ROTT: This is Ayako Zagalaba.

ZABALAGA: I would feel like before I drink it, I'd want to really know how they purify and stuff.

ROTT: Nathan Smith, who's standing outside, is less apprehensive.

NATHAN SMITH: If it meets code and it meets all the health standards, fine. It's done. And if they've already been doing it, clearly people haven't had a problem with it. So by all means, continue the work.

ROTT: California's legislature agrees. It's moving towards allowing direct consumption of recycled wastewater in the coming years. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.