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Developing wastewater’s circular economy: How do we gain public acceptance?

August 23, 2022

By Arthur Umble

In the fight against climate change, purple pipes full of reclaimed water are leading to direct potable reuse. It’s a key path forward.

A decade ago, if you said “purple pipe” people would likely scratch their head and give you a funny look.

Today, purple pipe systems distribute recycled water across Southwest urban areas. They are here in my neighborhood near Denver, Colorado. They carry much of the water for irrigating our lawns, parks, and median strips. It is, quite simply, part of our solution to a limited resource.

Previously, I’ve written about the importance of wastewater’s circular economy to fight climate change and real-life ways we can pay for it. But, without public acceptance of a circular economy and reusing waste, we aren’t going anywhere. We are simply treading water—and seeing the devastating impact of climate change around us.

The good news? Those purple pipes are evidence of public acceptance.

Purple pipe systems distribute recycled water across urban areas in the Southwest. They carry much of the water for irrigating our lawns, parks, and median strips.

Accepting proof of potable reuse

Many people are still hesitant to accept reclaimed or recycled water—water pulled from the wastewater system—as part of their potable water system. Instead of scratching their heads and giving you that funny look, they put up their hands and say “no.”

Aren’t there pathogens in the water? Doesn’t that wastewater have other contaminants that could affect my health? Is there PFAS in there?

The simple answer: Yes. The better answer: Yes, but we’ve taken them out. That’s what engineers are doing. That’s why utilities are spending millions of dollars to improve their systems.

From a technology perspective, recycled water isn’t just good enough for the grass, it’s purified enough to drink. Right now. But the public’s view matters. To help gain public acceptance, we must first clean the water. That is no longer a challenge. Secondly, the public wants the inclusion of an environmental buffer between the reclaimed wastewater and the tap.

That buffer can be a reservoir, an underground aquifer, or even an extended reach of a river. It allows the reclaimed water to sit and mix with “regular” water. And after some time, the public is more accepting of the reclaimed water. We are doing that now with our work for San Diego’s Pure Water Program.

Actually, we can replace the environmental buffer with an engineered buffer such as a pipeline. It serves the same function as the environmental buffer but delivers the reused water to the tap in hours rather than months. To ensure the engineered buffer performs to an equal or higher standard than the environmental buffer, extensive monitoring is provided in real-time data on the quality of the reused water delivered.

Direct potable reuse is here for communities where water is so scarce that the utilities and residents are basically saying: “My back is against the wall, and I need water.” Some places in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas are so desperate for water that they accept it with only the engineered buffer.

The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in Los Angeles, California, is the City’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment facility. By 2035, the plan is to recycle 100% of the plant’s wastewater.

Your tap water—it’s a great deal

You don’t think about it when you go to the corner store and spend $2.50 or so on a liter of bottled water. It’s just the cost. But it’s 100 times more expensive than your tap water. And your tap water is of equal quality—often better quality. So, utilities and customers are not putting the proper value on their water.

Think about it. We don’t charge anything close to the actual cost of water delivery. It involves building facilities and energy costs to build pipelines and pump, store, and treat the water. And in many places, the monthly charge for potable water coming out of your tap is $50, $60, or $70, which often includes fees for sewage collection and treatment services.

It’s a great deal for the customer. But it devalues the commodity.

Again, this is about public acceptance of the true value of water. Things are changing in places like southern California, southern Nevada, and northern Arizona—where they rely on the Colorado River basin for their water. The water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are dropping like crazy. As a result, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just significantly reduced the water allocation to those areas.

As the water availability goes down, the cost goes up. Water utilities are adjusting to the market. Water is more expensive than ever. But it’s difficult for the water utility to send you a bill that’s 25% higher than it was last month—and then 10% higher every year moving forward.

Instead, they’re putting customers on block pricing. For example, for the first 1,000 cubic feet of water used, the utility will keep the price what it’s been. But as soon as you hit 1,001 cubic feet, we’re going to hit you with a big price increase. That emphasizes personal responsibility and the true value of water.

It also means that running a sprinkler to get a bunch of green grass is unsustainable for many people. They can’t afford it. Nobody wants to pay more. We are currently living through huge inflation—gas prices, food prices, and housing prices. But water prices?

As a utility, if I raise the customers’ rates, they have no control. They must accept it whether it’s a gallon of water or 1,000 gallons. But if I institute block pricing, my customer has a degree of control over the charges. It’s amazing how quickly people buy into the idea—and take control. Suddenly, the idea of shorter showers is quite popular. Now I know I can’t just wash my car in my driveway.

That is public acceptance of the situation

Nobody wants to pay more for their water. But the public must accept that water has a definite cost. And none of us have been paying enough—for years.

Changing regulations to gain acceptance

We also need to remove some of the existing regulatory barriers. These barriers are often designed to protect public health, which is essential. But they can also hinder progress. If a regulation requires zero risk—that’s an extremely high bar to clear. And that zero risk bar also reinforces in customers’ minds that “I don’t want this water. It’s not safe.”

But these restrictive regulations are changing. What’s going on in southern California is a great example. They are taking a different type of risk-management approach—one that allows them to win over the public and use recycled water where it wasn’t used before.

The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in Los Angeles is a great example. It’s the City’s largest wastewater treatment facility, and most of the treated water goes into the Pacific Ocean. That’s a waste.

LA Sanitation and Environment’s Hyperion 2035 project will recycle 100% of the plant’s wastewater by 2035. It will produce up to 170 million gallons per day of recycled water for potable use and will be the world’s largest potable reuse system.

And how did we get here? The Mayor of LA and other leaders are pursuing LA’s Green New Deal. They are pushing for public acceptance. Why? Because climate change is here, and it’s impacting southern California’s water supply, and that is impacting Los Angeles.

Wastewater recovery plants provide recycled water for a variety of uses. That water is carried through purple pipes. It’s a great step toward direct potable reuse.

Getting public support is critical

Nobody wants to pay more for their water. But the public must accept that water has a definite cost. And none of us have been paying enough—for years.

The technology already exists to radically change how we view and treat wastewater. And climate change demands that we not wait another minute to get started.

Public education and public acceptance are critical to the success of our circular economy. Next time you see some purple pipes in your neighborhood, think of them as the first steps on a journey to a better world.

  • Arthur Umble

    As the lead for Stantec's Institute for Water Technology & Policy, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
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