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Taking the Waste Out of Wastewater

Jessica Yu
New York Times

Fourteen states suffering under drought. Water use in Southwest heads for day of reckoning. Water-pollution laws violated more than 500,000 times in five years. Ruptures in aging water systems cause pollutants to seep into water supplies.

The above reporting from The Times speaks to a growing reality: the United States faces a water crisis. In making the feature documentary “Last Call at the Oasis,” I found the flow of evidence bracing in its breadth and acceleration, but the underlying dynamics are not new: we use more water than the system can naturally replenish, and we abuse the supply we have. During, say, periods of drought, we might fitfully curtail our consumption habits, but when it comes to long-term management strategies requiring long-term sacrifices, we balk. Isn’t clean and abundant water a basic right? We just need to find more water!

While we can’t “make” more water, there is one solution to water shortage problems that addresses issues of both quality and supply. Without mining an ancient aquifer, draining a natural spring or piping in the pricey harvest from a greenhouse-gas-and-brine-generating desalination plant, there is a solution to provide a valuable source of extremely pure water: reclaim it from sewage. The stuff from our showers, sinks and, yes, our toilets.  In Israel, more than 80 percent of household wastewater is recycled, providing nearly half the water for irrigation. A new pilot plant near San Diego and a national “NEWater” program in Singapore show it’s practical to turn wastewater into water that’s clean enough to drink. Yet, in most of the world, we are resistant to do so.

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