What is the biggest challenge to direct potable use of reclaimed or recycled water? Some of the most common reasons that technologists and politicians give are huge capital investment, public perception, lack of demand, and fear of trace organic compounds and microconstituents. These reasons may be the specific drawbacks for particular projects, but are they the overarching concerns? Could the real issues be lack of trust on one hand and far too much trust on the other?
The lack of trust stems from public sector ownership, operation, and maintenance of the utilities producing and supplying the reclaimed water. Despite the fact that drinking water never stops (with rare exception) and wastewater is gone with a flush, the belief persist that city, state, and federal employees are overpaid underperformers. In the public’s mind, the question becomes, “do these government workers know what they are doing, and can we trust them to do it well?”
Perhaps the bigger problem is too much trust in our water supply. Public water systems have made themselves into the invisible industry by continually providing unrestricted water supplies to our homes and businesses. (The irony is how concretely this proves false any doubts about utility performance, in general.) But now, since “weird weather” is the norm, natural water supply patterns aren’t the same. Having enough water from natural cycles is no longer a safe bet year after year. Water supplies can’t provide what isn’t available, but reclaimed water always is available.
Craig Riley is reuse program lead at the Washington State Department of Health and chairman of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Water Reuse Committee.
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