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The Health Factor of Recycled Water

The Health Factor of Recycled Water
Water on Earth has been recycled since the beginning of time. Now that San Diego is facing serious long-term water issues, the region is finally coming to terms with how to recycle what we flush down the toilets and drains and turn it into safe drinking water.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The idea of drinking water that's been flushed down the toilet is a hard sell. Theoretically, we may accept it's possible to recycle waste water, but in reality many of us would rather let someone else drink it. That attitude, typified by the phrase 'toilet to tap,' has slowed down San Diego's efforts at water reclamation and, some say, has put us at a big disadvantage in securing a reliable source of much-needed water. This hour, our week-long series of reports on water conservation continues with a look at water recycling, what health officials say, what other communities are doing around the country to reclaim their waste water, and what new projects are underway in San Diego that may change our minds about recycled water. KPBS health reporter Tom Fudge is my first guest as part of our series "H2NO: San Diego Going Dry." Tom has filed a report on how San Diego, along with other communities, are learning to come to terms with the issue of recycled water. And welcome, Tom.


TOM FUDGE (KPBS Health Reporter): And hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Hi. I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think that San Diego is way behind the curve when it comes to accepting water recycling or do you think there are legitimate health issues concerned? You can give us a call. That number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Tom, as you point out in your feature report, recycling is not a new idea, it's been going on as long as there's been life on earth. But across the country, people are drinking recycled water, water that's been recycled, sort of engineered that way and scientifically. Tell us about that.

FUDGE: Well, let me tell you about the way that water is normally recycled.


FUDGE: And it's not even called recycling. But imagine you live on a river, something like the Mississippi River and you're – you live in a big city but there are two or three or four big cities upstream from you. Well, what they're doing is, they're probably drawing water from the river. They're treating it, making, you know, making it into waste water, treating it and then putting it back into the river and that becomes your water supply. So in other words, you are already drinking somebody's waste water. Of course, it's treated. I spoke with a fellow named Alan Rimer. He's a water reuse consultant with a firm called Black & Veatch and he talks about this and he refers to his own upbringing, growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


ALAN RIMER (Water Reuse Consultant): I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and when I flushed my toilet, it went into the Ohio River, with some treatment, and Cincinnati drank that water after taking it out of river bank wells and treating it. And that's what we call indirect potable reuse. We have been doing it in this country ever since time immemoriam (sic).

FUDGE: Ever since time immemoriam, and if you don't think that San Diego does this at all, let me point out that the City of Las Vegas dumps its waste water into Lake Mead. Lake Mead becomes part of the Colorado River, and we draw our water supply from that. So we're already recycling water, it's just water from Las Vegas.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I – People, I think, kind of know that in the back of their minds but they don't really want to think about it so much. And they don't want to think about it because it is true that bad things can get into drinking water.

FUDGE: Absolutely. Well, bad things can get into drinking water because drinking water is drawn from whatever your watershed is. And, for instance, on the Mississippi River, waste water goes into the Mississippi River. They say that the people in New Orleans, when they drink water, they're drinking water that has been through about nine sets of human intestines. So think about that a little bit. But basically everything goes into waste water, everything. And I spoke with Rick Gersberg, who's a Professor of Public Health at San Diego State University and here's what he had to say about what goes into our waste water.

RICHARD GERSBERG (Professor of Environmental Health, San Diego State University): Microbial pathogens, that is viruses like hepatitis, bacteria like salmonella, and E. coli. Things like birth controls but caffeine from coffee, you can find now in waste water and, unfortunately, also in some of our drinking waters.

FUDGE: And so obviously he's saying that even though there's treatment, some of this does end up in drinking water. It's just a question of how much, and that's what the EPA is looking at, how much of these contaminants get into our water. But we're talking about any kind of chemical, pharmaceuticals, you name it.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. And we’re talking about that's right now, without any sort of recycle plant or anything like that. The EPA monitors drinking water, finds these contaminants in them but sets levels that they determine what kind of water is healthy.

FUDGE: Right, but they don't test – Let me point out, they don't test for absolutely any chemical. I mean, Rick Gersberg says there is thousands of chemicals out there that we use for any number of things and the EPA is just checking for about a hundred of them.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it sounds to me, you know, we have this big flap, as you pointed out in your feature, about the stigma of the term 'toilet to tap.' We had that in this – we've had that for about ten years here in San Diego. How much of the public's disdain for recycled water is psychological?

FUDGE: A lot of it is psychological, and let me talk about that expression 'toilet to tap' because I recently went to a water convention in downtown San Diego at the convention center. And when I mentioned to some of these water reuse specialists that I was from San Diego, they said, ah, 'toilet to tap.' So San Diego has become famous for that expression. And while the expression 'toilet to tap' is technically correct, it is misleading because it's not 'toilet to tap.' First of all, it's toilet to treatment to tap if we were to do something like that, and it's not toilet to treatment to tap, it's toilet, washing machine, kitchen sink, bathtub, to treatment, to tap. And so saying it's just all toilet water, of course, is very distasteful and it's very misleading as well.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. We have a caller on the line. John is in Escondido. And good morning, John, welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, Escondido): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

JOHN: Well, I was just going to say that I agree exactly with what Tom was saying that we are already, in effect, drinking 'toilet to tap.' The water that comes from the delta and the water that comes down the Colorado River, every town upstream treats their water, dumps it back in, and it's diluted but we're still drinking that stuff. There was an episode on "Frontline" a few months ago called "Poisoned Waters" that talked about every town on the east coast is doing this over and over and over and over again. And so I just think it's a misnomer that – I mean, we just don't – we already are drinking 'toilet to tap.' Well, people that drink city municipal water supplies do – are.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.

FUDGE: Okay, yes, that's absolutely true. We're drinking 'toilet to tap' but, again, I like to point out it is – Nowhere is it 'toilet to tap.' It's – Waste water is anything that goes down the drain. It's not just toilet water, okay? I mean, it's from your bathtub, it's from your washing machine, you name it, anything that goes down the drain. And it isn't 'toilet to tap' it's toilet to treatment to tap. As a matter of fact, now it's not even that. It's toilet to – toilet and tub to treatment to a reservoir and then it gets treated again and then it goes to your tap. Let me talk about a situation they have, Maureen, in northern Virginia. I spoke with a guy named Chuck Boepple, and he is Executive Director of the Upper Occoquan Service Authority and what they do, there is – they serve about a million people in suburban Washington, D.C. What they do is, they treat their waste water and then they dump it into Bull Run, that famous Civil War battlefield, Creek—the battle was named for Bull Run. They dump it into Bull Run. It goes about 15 miles then it goes into a reservoir, this waste water, and then in the reservoir it is treated again and then it's used for drinking water. And Chuck Boepple said something interesting about the waste water that they're discharging into Bull Run that then mixes with the reservoir. He said that this waste water is actually, by EPA standards, as clean as drinking water.

CHUCK BOEPPLE (Executive Director, Upper Occoquan Service Authority): And some would actually say, why do you put it in the streams to get dirty all over again? But, you know, it's not a bad system to have, you know, the public probably likes that gap in the middle and the regulators aren't quite ready to say, you know, this is good enough to go directly from discharge right into a distribution system for drinking water.

CAVANAUGH: So here we get this psychological aspect again. They can make their waste water, they can recycle it, they could, theoretically, put that right back into the water supply but, instead, they put it in the reservoir because it makes people feel better.

FUDGE: Because it makes people feel better even though putting it back into the reservoir, in a way, just makes it dirty again. But as he said, psychologically, people, as he puts it, people like that gap in the middle. And when I was talking to Rick Gersberg, the Public Health Professor at San Diego State, he pointed out – he said, it's not a good idea for scientists just to say to the public, look, this is fine, just drink it. It's, you know, it's safe, we can prove it's safe. He says, it's people's perceptions about sanitation and what they're drinking is very important, it's not just science.

CAVANAUGH: So there's more than one way to do a recycled water system.

FUDGE: Yeah. The other way – What we've been talking about is reservoir – the term is reservoir augmentation. You treat water to a high level and then you put it in the reservoir and then it becomes part of your drinking water supply. And San Diego, as a matter of fact, is going to be testing this system. Testing this system, they've got a project, a demonstration project, that's coming up. But San Diego is, like many communities, is already recycling water at the North City Water Reclamation Plant. What they do is they take the waste water and they treat it to what they call a tertiary level. It's a pretty high level of treatment but not quite drinking water. And then they put it into purple pipes and then they send it to places like golf courses and condo developments so that they can water their grass and this kind of thing, and that's water recycling. You're not turning it back into drinking water but you're turning it back into water you can use for irrigation. The problem with that system, which is called a dual delivery system, is you have to have different pipes for the non-potable water and the potable water. You have to keep them separately (sic). And if we had enough pipes in San Diego, I could be – I suppose I could be flushing my toilet with – at my home with non-potable water but that requires an awful lot of purple pipes.

CAVANAUGH: And we're going to be talking, Tom, in the next half of the show about – so much about recycled water and water used for landscaping, gray water, and the new projects that San Diego is – is underway, the test projects for their potable water. But I'm wondering, doing it this two-tiered system, isn't that more expensive?

FUDGE: Well, it depends who you talk to. When I talked to Alan Rimer, the guy you heard right at the beginning, he's very much in favor of dual delivery systems. He pointed out, by the way, that the people who live in Hong Kong flush their toilets with sea water, so think about that. They actually divert water from sea water and they use that to flush their toilets. And he thinks that a dual delivery system is the way to go. Other people, you know, because, he says, the treating – treating water to a potable level is so difficult and so expensive. Other people say, no, that's not true. It's more expensive to make all these purple pipes. Now if you're working on a new kind of development, say a new housing development, doing a dual delivery system might make sense because you're building the houses new, you can put in the purple pipes so you can bring in the non-potable water and the potable water, and maybe that makes sense. But to retrofit all of our existing homes and buildings in San Diego with a dual delivery system? That would be – well, it's unheard of.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Right. But we're doing, already, right now, what may be the most expensive option and that is flushing our toilets with drinking water in it.

FUDGE: Yes. Yes, that's true. And sending it out to sea.


FUDGE: They were – There are, I hope I get this right, I think 180 million gallons of water a day are pumped out to sea at the Point Loma Treatment Plant in San Diego. And that water is gone. It's in the ocean. Now maybe we might have desalination plants but that's not going to be much water. So the water in San Diego that we pump out to the ocean is gone. Nobody's going to use it, it's not going to be recycled.

CAVANAUGH: Tom, thank you so much for this. I've been speaking with KPBS health reporter Tom Fudge. Our discussion on recycled water will continue and we will be taking your calls. We have a panel of guests to tell us what new efforts are being made here in San Diego to reclaim the water that goes down the drain. Stay with us. These Days continues in just a moment.