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The ultimate in recycling: drinking water from wastewater

The biggest problem will be convincing critics, who have dubbed the process "toilet to tap," that the water will remain safe and drinkable.


The biggest problem will be convincing critics, who have dubbed the process "toilet to tap," that the water will remain safe and drinkable.

In the coming months, Clearwater's city manager and the mayor will stand together in the City Council chamber and toast each other with glasses of water.

This won't be typical tap water. It will be wastewater. Purified wastewater, but wastewater just the same.

You read that correctly. They'll drink water that probably came from a Clearwater toilet.

They didn't lose a bet. It will be an effort to persuade Clearwater residents that their city should join other communities that are transforming wastewater into potable water.


Proponents say recycling wastewater takes pressure off the aquifer, cuts the amount of wastewater running into local waters and eventually trims water bills.

It won't be easy to implement. The permitting process alone takes about five years. And the total cost is unknown.

But the biggest problem will be convincing critics, who have dubbed the process "toilet to tap," that their water will remain safe and drinkable.

"We're going to have to drink a glass to demonstrate the credibility to our discussions," City Manager Bill Horne said. "We're not trying to get sensational headlines. This is a legitimate topic, so to show how serious we are and that it's not harmful, I'll have to drink it."

Clearwater's plan is to treat the wastewater, then inject it into the ground to recharge the aquifer, the state's main source for drinking water, and return it to residents.

City leaders have asked its engineers to study other localities that have adopted the process, particularly Orange County, Calif.

But, they realize, not everyone is going to buy into it.

"The jury is out as long as the science is out," said Council member Paul Gibson, adding that he would let Mayor Frank Hibbard take the first sip. "I think a lot of people will have a considerable problem with this, despite what the science may say."

• • •

Recycling wastewater isn't a new concept, but only recently has it been tried at the level Clearwater is considering.

For decades, cities have used reclaimed water for crops and lawns. And Tampa Bay Water, which delivers 182-million gallons of water a day to the region, started desalinating ocean water in 2003, blending it with the water supply that serves Hills­borough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

In California, where energy and water supplies are low, Orange County has become a trail­blazer in a concept it calls "indirect potable reuse" or "ground water replenishment." Officials there cringe at the phrase "toilet to tap."

In January, the county opened the world's largest water-purification project, a $500-million plant that pumps 35-million gallons a day and serves 500,000 residents, about 20 percent of the area's customers. The county plans to upgrade next year and pump 70-million gallons a day.

"It actually produces near-distilled water," said Shivaji Deshmukh, program manager for Orange County's ground­water replenishment system.

The county offset the price tag with $90-million in grants, but it costs about $29-million a year to run. But, officials say, customers can eventually expect cheaper water bills.

Here's how it works: Once the county's sanitation district treats the wastewater, it is processed through a microfilter to remove any solids or bacteria, according to Deshmukh. Then it goes through a reverse-osmosis treatment to remove any viruses, drugs or contaminants. It is then targeted with ultra­violet light and hydrogen peroxide to remove anything missed.

Next, the district pumps it into a basin. The water takes about six months to reach residents.

In Clearwater, Robert Fahey, the city's utilities engineering manager, says the city has the equipment to upgrade waste­water to potable water, but needs at least four injection wells so the treated water can reach the aquifer. Each well could cost between $500,000 and $1-million.

"I have every confidence that we can do this and make it safe," he said.

• • •

Other Florida localities are considering similar measures.

Miami-Dade County spent $350-million on a facility after the state said it couldn't tap more than 347-million gallons a day from the aquifer. County leaders say they need an additional 74-million gallons a day.

Their plant will allow them to pump 23-million gallons, said Frank Calderon, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. In return, the state will let them match that from the aquifer.

The system won't be operational until 2014, and the purified wastewater won't actually reach a kitchen faucet until four years later because of the time it takes to run through the area's limestone aquifer.

Floridians use 6.5-billion gallons of water a day, and proponents of recycling waste­water say the move will relieve the aquifer, which environmentalists say is growing low, particularly in South Florida.

Proponents also say it's cheaper than desalinating water, which uses a lot of energy. And because it's reusable, consumers could see cheaper water bills.

In Clearwater, residents consume 12-million gallons of potable water a day. The city buys two-thirds of it from Pinellas County for $2.86 per 1,000 gallons. Transforming wastewater would reduce the city's reliance on the county.

Additionally, the project would provide an opportunity for future growth without putting a strain on resources "and at a cost not borne by the consumer," said Charles Pattison, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit growth management watchdog that studies environmental issues.

But the plan has its critics.

The "gross-out factor" aside, some say the process is subject to human error, and they are concerned the filtration process may not eliminate dangerous contaminants.

They suggest water conservation is the best way to save money and help the environment.

"I don't have enough faith in engineers to drink dog dip and embalming fluids," said Thomas W. Reese, a St. Petersburg attorney who specializes in environmental law and water issues.

Reese says "not much has changed" since the National Research Council, a nonprofit institute that provides health policy advice, issued a 1998 report that said recycling wastewater should be a last option.

But proponents, such as Newport, Calif., internal medicine physician Jack Skinner, who is on the state's drinking water evaluation committee, say significant strides have been made. Skinner said the advancement of reverse osmosis and ultra­violet light treatment removes any dangers.

• • •

Regardless of the safety issues, governments have to find ways to sell the concept to the public.

And even after that, implementation isn't quick.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, realizing more than five years ago that governments may turn to recycling wastewater as the state faces water shortages, established a number of treatment requirements before the water can be injected into the aquifer.

"It's going to have to meet high levels of disinfection — it's got to be very clean water," said Sharon Sawicki, a professional engineer administrator for the domestic wastewater section for the DEP.

She said the process, which requires a pilot program and frequent inspections, could take five years before permits are issued.

But before that, Sawicki recommends governments meet with the public so people know what's going on.

California and Miami-Dade officials say they launched extensive education programs before initiating their projects. But, Deshmukh concedes, "some people are still uneasy about it."

He's right. Clearwater Beach resident and jeweler Suzanne Boschen said she "might drag a glacier home before drinking it."

"For lawns and golf courses, sure, it's fine, but not for something we put into our bodies that's so critical," she said. "It's going to take a lot of data for this one (to be accepted)."

Clearwater leaders acknowledge the concerns, so they'll take the first drink. The plan is to treat a couple of glasses of wastewater on site, without going through the aquifer, so residents can see they're serious.

"It's provocative and challenging for the public to embrace, but in reality it exists and is being used in other communities," Horne said. "Therefore, couldn't it be used in our community?"

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

The ultimate in recycling: drinking water from wastewater 05/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 3:33pm]
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