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From toilet to tap: Would you drink recycled wastewater?




A Martinez downs some recycled wastewater.
A Martinez downs some recycled wastewater.
Austin Cross

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Imagine you're outside one afternoon, and you're running to make an appointment. It's hot. You're thirsty.

Suddenly you see a booth offering free water. The person at the booth hands you a chilled bottle. But before you take a sip they tell you the water in your hands is recycled wastewater — toilet water, if you will.

Would you still drink it? 

Well, you might just find yourself facing that quandary today. 

That's because the Orange County Water District has teamed up with the OC Sanitation District to find an answer to a pressing problem in California: Is there a way to sustainably source our water?

Starting today, they'll be setting up "lemonade stands" where the water can be sampled. 

For more, Take Two spoke to Mehul Patel, director of water production for the OC Water District. 

In layman's terms, how does this water go from its original source all the way to the bottle?

The basic point is that anything that leaves your house is waste. Wastewater ends up at a big, central wastewater treatment plant. 

The water goes through an extensive level of treatment, which we call secondary treatment, to the point where that water's suitable for ocean discharge. 

That water goes to an advanced level of treatment at the Orange County Water District where the water is of ultra-pure quality, where it goes beyond drinking water quality. That water can then be introduced or replenished into the local groundwater aquifer, which is the main source of drinking water in North and Central Orange County. 

The water bottle comes from our facility. Part of the effort to bottle the water is one that we've spent a lot of time working through the California legislature even to allow that to occur. We feel that drinking it is the best way to show that the technology is there, it's been done, and it's another way to find alternative-sourced water in a drought-stricken region. 

How new is this technology?

The heart of it's been around since the mid-70s, early 80s. But using this technology for municipal water treatment is relatively new. Our project's probably one of the first to use it on a large scale. 

What was the motivation for developing it? 

We maintain a large underground aquifer here in Orange County that's the main drinking water source for almost two-and-a-half-million people. The sources that have traditionally replenished the groundwater here have been affected by the drought. 

We knew that — to keep up with demand in the area — we needed to come up with an alternative source of water. 

We knew that this highly treated wastewater was being discharged through the ocean millions of gallons a day and that there was the potential that that water could be treated to drinking water standards and beyond and used as an additional source. 

We did years and years of research and testing and found that not only could we treat this water, but we could treat it economically to the point where it's cost-competitive with the other sources of water that are used to replenish the aquifer. Once we knew that, we decided to build the project.

We asked a lot of people in the newsroom at KPCC to try this water. Not a single one said yes. Why is it so hard for people to get into the idea of drinking wastewater? Is it all in our heads?

Yeah, a lot of it is in our heads. What most people don't realize is that treated wastewater of different qualities has always been part of the water supply. All water has been recycled at one point or another. Any water is the same water. It's just the level of treatment that determines.

We don't want the water to be judged by its source, but by where it is today. That's the bias we have to overcome. 

(A Martinez tries the water) 

It tastes like normal water. I gotta admit — I was dreading this but I was going to do it for the show. But it tastes like normal water. 

Yeah, and that's the number one comment we get. And it should. It's water. All water is water as long as you do the right treatment like we have. It shouldn't taste any different. This water is just as good if not better than any other source of water you're drinking now. 

 

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview. 
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.