Editor’s Comments: Supply, Shortages, Solutions

Sept. 12, 2015

I have started reading The Big Thirst, The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman. My contacts working in water often mention, with frustration, how invisible our buried infrastructure is to the public, but Fishman offers even more perspective on our collective, but understandable, blindness.

In writing that is inviting and compelling, he discusses our ignorance when it comes to water supply: “…to say that we take water for granted is, in some ways, to give us too much credit…we don’t notice it enough to take it for granted…. That first water revolution [of clean municipal water] ushered in an era—the one we think we still live in—in which water was unlimited, free, and safe…we could stop thinking about it. The fact that it was unfailingly available ‘on demand’ meant that we would use more, even as we thought about it less…”

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Perhaps it has been especially comforting to not have to think about our sewage systems. Fishman cites an AWWA Research Foundation study conducted in 1999, Residential End Uses of Water, saying it found the largest amount of residential water goes to bathroom use. And, surprisingly, the largest use in the bathroom over the course of a day is flushing the toilet.

The new water revolution, partly underway, will demand varied kinds of reuse, says Fishman, “toilet to tap” being perhaps the least desirable, but one that he says marks a central and reassuring fact, that “water can be cleaned, always.”

My county just cut the ribbon on a facility to treat wastewater to potable standards. Right now the water is being reused for irrigating landscapes, but studies had shown that direct potable reuse was the best, most cost-effective way to make the region more drought resistant. This facility is not injecting the water into the aquifer like Orange County, CA’s Groundwater Replenishment System, but officials are exploring options for mixing the treated effluent with other potable sources in order to introduce it into the drinking water supply. Step by step, residents are being eased into accepting something that is still
unthinkable to many.

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My position at the hub of this national magazine—where I also read stories of water stress around the globe—informs me that the unthinkable is likely to be fairly commonplace within a decade. Not every region will need to reuse wastewater, but many places are looking at emergencies if they don’t. In international news, the latest city to implement sewage-to-drinking water is New Delhi, India, following years of crisis.

Fishman reminds us that our ancestors in the not so distant past had to build communities near water, carry water, and deal more personally with waste. For the developed world, those realities changed completely. Yet in times of great need, the silos that separate wastewater and potable water lose significance, and water is just water. Just ask the space station astronauts!

With the dividing line between potable water and wastewater increasingly blurred, we are expanding our wastewater coverage in this and subsequent issues, even as the wastewater field itself matures.

In the content we are running in this issue of Water Efficiency, I see two things: a varied menu of solutions for water stress, and passionate implementers. With leading-edge minds, noteworthy innovations, and environment conscious compromises, it’s more than “just another day at the water utility.”

And we are working to be at the forefront too, in the way only media can be. We watch for developments, talk to players and stakeholders, and gather the information we think will be most useful to our readers. Please let us know if there is a topic you wish to see featured, a project we should know about, or a reader or thought-leader you would like to see profiled. Our goal is to help relieve the stress on water and those who manage it, so in our pages you get the best water information there is—on tap—not subject to shortages.