Would you drink toilet water? Wastewater is permitted for human consumption in California

Would you consider consuming reclaimed water from toilets? California greenlights the use of treated wastewater for human consumption.

In the intricate network of water flow in California, from toilet flushes to diverse destinations like ice-skating rinks, ski slopes, and farmlands, a groundbreaking development is on the horizon: soon, this recycled water might find its way into kitchen faucets.

This week, California regulators approved pioneering rules permitting water agencies to recycle wastewater and integrate it into the pipelines delivering drinking water to residences, schools, and businesses.

This decision represents a significant leap for a state grappling with the challenge of securing dependable drinking water sources for its over 39 million residents. It also reflects a shift in public sentiment on a matter that, merely two decades ago, faced vehement opposition, leading to the abandonment of similar initiatives.

The backdrop to this decision includes California’s enduring struggle with prolonged droughts, with the most recent one being labeled the driest three-year period on record by scientists, resulting in dangerously low reservoir levels.

Jennifer West, Managing Director of WateReuse California, an advocate for recycled water, emphasized the importance of maximizing water usage in a state where water is considered incredibly precious.

While California has a history of using recycled wastewater for various purposes—such as producing ice for hockey rinks, making snow at ski resorts, and irrigating crops—direct consumption of treated wastewater has not been implemented until now. The new rules empower water agencies to treat wastewater and incorporate it into the drinking water system, making California the second state to embrace this approach after Colorado.

Over a decade of meticulous regulatory development, involving multiple scientific reviews by independent panels, has led to the approval of these rules. The California Water Resources Control Board faced a legislatively mandated deadline of December 31 for approving these regulations, a target that was met with just days to spare.

Major water agencies in the state, serving millions of people, welcomed the decision, as they plan to establish large-scale water-recycling plants in the near future. For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California aims to produce up to 150 million gallons (nearly 570 million liters) per day of both direct and indirect recycled water. Similarly, a project in San Diego aspires to contribute nearly half of the city’s water by 2035.

However, gaining public support remains crucial for the success of these projects, requiring convincing arguments that recycled water is not only safe to drink but also palatable. The new regulations mandate rigorous treatment for all pathogens and viruses, surpassing the standards applied to regular water treatment, which only requires addressing known pathogens.

Despite the high cost and time investment associated with constructing these treatment facilities, proponents argue that the end result is water of equal or even superior quality compared to traditional sources.

Darrin Polhemus, Deputy Director of the Division of Drinking Water for the California Water Resources Control Board, asserted that the stringent treatment removes minerals that affect taste, necessitating their addition back into the water.

The Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center in San José serves as a testament to the high-tech nature of these processes, with public tours organized to dispel any concerns about the cleanliness of the water produced.

Kirsten Struve, Assistant Officer for the Water Supply Division at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, emphasized the necessity of drought-resistant water supplies in California’s future, given the recurring droughts and the escalating impacts of climate change.

Joaquin Esquivel, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which approved the new rules, highlighted that, in essence, people are already consuming recycled water. Many wastewater treatment plants release treated water back into rivers and streams, which then flows downstream for consumption.

Esquivel underscored the role of standards, science, and monitoring in ensuring the purity of recycled water, stating that “All water is recycled.”

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