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Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Oct 30, 2016
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DianneErskineHellrigelA couple of years ago I wrote about recycling urine for use in the garden, as is done in Sweden. The overwhelming response from the community was a loud and resounding, “Yuck.”

Well, San Diego has taken this idea a huge step forward. They are recycling treated sewage for tap water – and they’ve been doing it for a couple of years.

They say treated sewage is by far the safest source of clean water they can offer the community. And it is cheapest way of creating fresh water.

In the hills of northern San Diego is the water processing plant. The issue is that their current sources of water are becoming more scarce, and the price of imported water is skyrocketing.

Today they dump their wastewater into the ocean. If that water could be recycled for human consumption, it would not damage the ecosystems in the ocean; the city would save money from importing less water from Sacramento or Colorado; and the community would get a cleaner, safer source of water. But the question is: Will they drink it?

Knowing that my drinking water came out of a toilet bowl would be a hard sell. This proposal was downed in San Diego in 2004 and in Australia, as well. Sewage effluent is 100-percent contaminated. The treated water is pure, clean and 100-percent safe.

So, what are we to do when our customary sources of water are no longer available? Desalinization is an option, but it is expensive and would require trucks or pipelines to transfer it, making it even more expensive.

As the drought worsens, we will have to make decisions. We cannot live without water. Businesses cannot function without water. Many of us have taken steps to cut back on water by refusing to water our once-lush lawns. Many of us refuse to face the facts of water shortage and continue to water our grounds.

drought04Right now, our “clean” water from the processing plant is being used to water a golf course and other public grounds, while San Diegans warm to the idea of allowing it to be sent directly to their taps. Another option being considered is adding it to their reservoir where it would undergo the same treatments that incoming river water receives.

In my research for this article, I discovered that every year, 19 million Americans become sick from drinking tap water. Nine hundred people die from various viruses, bacteria and protozoa that arrive in their taps from treated water. I had no idea. An example of this is the water in New Orleans, which comes from the Mississippi River. By the time it reaches its destination in New Orleans, it has been used five times, and the recycled and treated water is dumped into the system and comes out of the taps to the innocent people in New Orleans. And that water includes sewage that has been treated and tossed into the river, all along the river north of New Orleans.

That treated sewage is nowhere near as clean as what comes out of the plant in San Diego.

It makes me wonder how much “treated” water is being tossed into the water that we import from up north.

Take a look at reservoirs, lakes, streams, groundwater and rivers, and the possibility of water contamination. All water can be contaminated with arsenic. Anywhere water comes into contact with rocks that contain arsenic, it can be introduced into the water. Wildlife passing the water source an introduce urine and feces, resulting in giardia infection, as well. Ducks landing on any water source will leave their waste behind. There are many opportunities for fouling the water as it progresses from place to place, yet we never think of this. Then, finally, the water arrives in our reservoirs, gets sanitized and is sent along its way to us.

Yes, it is tested for water quality, and it usually it passes muster. But certain small amounts of bacteria and heavy metals are allowed to get through. The processed water in San Diego is absolutely pure. It far exceeds state and federal guidelines.

drought03dehBut would you drink it?

While cities in Australia have banned the use of converted wastewater, Orange County, Calif., is successfully using it by supplementing the groundwater supply with it. Silicon Valley is using it to water their farms and golf courses, a practice everyone can agree upon.

Someday, perhaps in a few years, we may have to face the decision of having no water at all, or using nothing but recycled sewage as our main water source. Hauling water in, piping it in from desalinization plants or importing water (as we currently do) may no longer be viable options.

We are not yet in such dire straits, but we might consider using recycled sewage water now for our landscaped areas and for our farms, many of which are wasting away.

In the meantime, let’s keep an eye on the pioneering efforts San Diego is engaged in, and keep an open mind for the future of water in our state.

To learn more about this project, [click here].

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

 

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