When it comes to living in a world with adequate amounts of clean water, we're starting to skate on some pretty thin ice. By 2025, half of the world's population won't have access to safe water, thanks to disasters fueled by climate change, pollution, political conflict, overdevelopment, and unsustainable farming practices, among other factors. A water crisis might seem hard to picture for the average American, given the country's love affair with pools, lawn sprinklers, carwashes, and hot tubs. But all over the world—and increasingly in certain pockets of the U.S.—there are dangerous shortages of water that could impact food prices and availability, jobs, the economy, and human and environmental health.
Recycling water—in other words, turning wastewater into drinkable H20—has been touted as one of the solutions for taming our growing water problem, but the process doesn't come without a gross-out factor. After all, the toilet-to-tap concept can be hard for the American psyche to process, as highlighted in the new documentary Last Call at the Oasis.
While drinking recycled, or "reclaimed," water is largely unheard of in the United States, many of us have tried it, in a roundabout way. According to Redwood City's Reclaimed Water Project in California, indirect drinking water reuse occurs in many communities as treated water from an upstream community rejoins a river and becomes part of a downstream water supply. Through groundwater recharge, recycled water is percolated into groundwater basins, mixes with naturally occurring groundwater, and eventually is pumped out for drinking water use.
While we may be unknowingly drinking recycled water here in the U.S., it's a well-known way of life in Singapore, where one-third of the island's water needs are met by reclaimed water treated so intensely that it meets safety standards. In the U.S., water-scarce areas like Tucson, Arizona, have a long history of recycling water, although, like Redwood City's project, it's used mainly for irrigation and not for human consumption—yet. "Looking at how we recycle water and how we do it is important," explains Fernando Molina, spokesperson for the Tucson Water Department. "We live in a desert. We have limitations on our water resources."
Tucson takes treated wastewater that would otherwise be discharged into the Santa Cruz River and further treats it for use as irrigation water for more than a dozen golf courses and nearly 40 parks. More than 700 single-family homes also tap recycled water for outdoor landscaping, while 52 schools, including the University of Arizona, irrigate with recycled water. Just taking that pressure off of the regular drinking water supply, which comes from the Colorado River system, and irrigating with reclaimed water saves the city as much water as 60,000 families would use in a year. That's substantial, considering that the average American uses more than 150 gallons of water a day.
It's not just about conservation, either. Tucson pays $20 million annually to bring in water from the Colorado River basin. A high cost, considering that 90 percent is lost after you flush it down the drain and it leaves the wastewater treatment facility.
There are two ways to create recycled water after it leaves the wastewater treatment plant. One involves complex mechanical filtration plants (think massive pool filters) while the other more closely resembles nature, with treated wastewater going through the ground to recharge aquifers. In the latter example, the one used in Tucson, Molina says biological processes in the ground help clean and filter the water, removing many contaminants.
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Still, contaminants are a concern not just in reclaimed water, but in city and well water, too. Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and anything else washed down household, industrial, or storm drains puts safe drinking water in peril. In an ideal world, products wouldn't contain toxic ingredients in the first place, but for now, water treatment experts are testing water samples and making innovations to ensure safe and sustainable water supplies. After all, experts have said that 21st-century wars won't be fought over oil, but over water.
Regardless of your stance on recycling water, here are 5 easy ways you can save tons of this precious, life-sustaining resource:
• Be better about eating less beef. Cut back on beef, which requires more than 1,500 gallons of water per pound to produce. Instead, opt to cook nutrient-packed dried beans, which take just 52 gallons of water per pound on average.
• Hit a thrift shop. It takes nearly 2,250 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make just one pair of jeans, and another 165 gallons to dilute the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow it. On top of that, hundreds more gallons are used to treat, dye, bleach, and finish the fabric. Going naked is probably not an option, but buying used clothing when you can and keeping your clothes until they wear out will go a long way toward slimming your water footprint.
• Create a water-sipping bathroom. In most American households, the single biggest water hog in the house is the toilet, averaging five gallons per flush. If you're in the market for a new low-flow commode, chose one bearing EPA's WaterSense label. If you don't want to buy a new toilet, fill a water bottle with several inches of sand and place it in the tank to reduce the water your toilet uses per flush. An added water saver? Keeping condoms, tampons, and other debris out of the toilet—trash like that can force your toilet to use up to 7 gallons per flush!
• Plant a water-smart landscape. Replace a water-hungry lawn with plants native to your area—they're much better at storing water and take less maintenance. Tap the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's database for ideas.
• Don't be a defrost dunce. Sure, running water over frozen food will thaw it out faster, but it wastes a significant amount of water. Avoid laying it on the counter to thaw—that could promote the growth of harmful pathogens—and instead plan ahead and defrost in the fridge.