A couple nights ago, my family ate dinner at a restaurant. The silverware we used was in someone else’s mouth at lunch — those forks and spoons right on some stranger’s tongue.
Last week, I stayed at a hotel. The linens I slept on, the towels I used after my shower, had been against the skin of strangers a day or two previously.
We aren’t grossed out by the silverware in restaurants or the towels in hotels, and for good reason. We all wash dishes. We all do the laundry. We know what clean dishes and clean towels mean — and if anything, we know that restaurants and hotels use a temperature of hot water that makes their silverware and their linens cleaner even than those we offer guests in our own home.
So what’s with all the squeamishness about re-using water?
Why does water that’s been explicitly cleaned for re-use conjure images that the forks and wash cloths don’t?
The real problem is that almost none of us ever clean our water, or know anything about how water gets clean.
Today’s New York Times has a story by Felicity Barringer that declares — with the kind of culture-flipping flourish the NYT’s front page can still muster — that the era of squeamishness over recycling water is over.
The headline, across four columns on the front of the print edition and prominently on the nytimes.com home page, declares, “As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows from Taps.”
Today’s story focuses, yet again, on Orange County, California’s, impressive system for cleaning wastewater to drinking water quality, then returning it to the aquifer from which 2.4 million people draw their drinking water, including Anaheim and Santa Ana.
But the story misses at least two of the most dramatic and long-standing examples of re-use in the country — examples that have been going on for years and show how valuable re-use is, and how having the political courage to put systems in place changes public skepticism to public support.
Orange County, the NYT story says, cleans 70 million gallons of water a day for return to its aquifer (enough for about 700,000 people).
Las Vegas, in fact, recycles 94 percent of the water that hits a drain anywhere in the Las Vegas metro area. The Las Vegas water — from kitchen sinks in Henderson, from hot tubs along the Strip — is cleaned to just-below drinking water standards (tertiary cleaning, it’s called), and returned to Lake Mead, the reservoir from which Las Vegas draws virtually all its drinking water.
How much water does Las Vegas clean and return each day? Over the last decade, the city has averaged 180 million gallons of recycled water a day, more than twice what San Diego is recyling (although slightly less clean).
All the water Las Vegas cleans and recycles flows into Lake Mead through a stream called the Las Vegas Wash. You can stand on the banks of the Wash and watch Las Vegas’s water being returned to its source.
Across the country, in Central Florida, they’ve been re-using wastewater for 26 years. Orange County, Florida, is one of the few places in the nation where, for most residents, it is illegal to water their lawns with potable drinking water. (PDF)
In 1986, Orange County, Florida, the county that surrounds Orlando and includes places like Universal Studios, created wastewater recycling plants, and it created the customers for them. The county mandated that going forward, all new construction — homes, schools, soccer fields, office parks — would have to use recycled water for outdoor watering. The county did not mandate retrofitting — every home and shopping mall and office was grandfathered. But every new subdivision and theme park would have to include a purple pipe system.
The results, 25 years later, are astonishing.
Today, Orange County delivers 59 million gallons of potable drinking water a day.
And, separately, Orange County cleans and delivers 53 million gallons of recycled water a day.
That’s 53 million gallons of water a day — enough for a half million people — that doesn’t have to come out of Florida’s shrinking Floridan Aquifer.
It’s not just water, of course, it’s attitude. In Central Florida, there’s a whole generation of builders, public officials, residents and school children who think it’s silly to water the lawn with purified drinking water.
In Las Vegas, home to more water ostentatiousness than any U.S. city, residents know that the only way to survive in the desert is to reuse the water you’ve already got.
Just two weeks ago, National Geographic’s Ker Than highlighted the same National Research Council report on the safety of recycled water cited in today’s NYT story.
And Water Currents’ Sandra Postel wrote last month about how Australians have discovered that water-cleaning technology has advanced so far that businesses don’t need to wait for their communities to start re-using wastewater. Small systems can be installed on a golf course, for instance, that tap wastewater pipes and clean and reuse the water before it can even get back to the municipal treatment plant.
In fact, the real problem has been attitude and presentation, not technology. The conversation about reusing water has been consistently hijacked by that mindless three-word phrase “toilet-to-tap.” And water people — great at pipes and pumps, but not so great at marketing — have been completely stumped.
Here’s a clue: It’s not wastewater. Even the waste, utilities are discovering, is a valuable resource. And the water itself certainly is.
What makes the phrase particularly dumb is that all water is, in fact, toilet to tap. No geology on Earth is making “new water.” All the water we’ve got is all the water we’ve ever had — your pristine Evian was pee at some point.
We’re not all using disposable silverware and towels. And our water is equally cleanable — and not disposable at all.
Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. He is the author of The Big Thirst.