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California Approves Rules for Making Drinking Water From Sewage

California legislators have approved regulations for water companies to begin purifying sewage water for people to drink.

In a state with over 39 million residents regularly stricken by years-long droughts, water companies will soon be permitted but not required to recycle toilet water, extensively treat it, and send it right back to kitchen sinks. California is the second state after Colorado to approve such measures.

“Water is so precious in California. It is important that we use it more than once,” said Jennifer West, managing director of WateReuse California, an advocacy group 

“After 13 years of steady advocacy, fundraising and outreach by WRCA, California is posed to adopt statewide regulations for Direct Potable Reuse,” a portion of the WatReuse California website reads. “It is a major milestone for the state and WRCA as DPR regulations have long been one of the primary objectives of the association. 

According to an article by the Associated Press, California has actually been using recycled waste water for quite a while just about everywhere besides kitchen faucets. Waste water is used to make ice skating rinks, to water crops and if you’ve gone skiing in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe your skis were likely gliding over – you guessed it- recycled sewage. So much for ‘don’t eat the yellow snow.’

The new regulations dictate that water companies will be required to treat the waste water for all pathogens and viruses, even if none are detected. This differs from traditional purification which only treats the water for known pathogens. The waste water purification process also strips the water of its minerals, which have to be added back in at the end of the process unlike regularly treated drinking water. Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the division of drinking water for the California Water Resources Control Board said this will likely make the recycled waste water taste better than traditionally processed drinking water.

“It’s at the same drinking water quality, and probably better in many instances,” Polhemus said to the Associated Press.

The regulations took over ten years to develop and underwent thorough, extensive scrutiny by several teams of scientists before they were approved ahead of the Dec 31 deadline set by state law for the California Water Resources Control Board to approve the new regulations.

It turns out this new development in water purification is actually somewhat arbitrary when modern water treatment practices are considered. According to Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the Water Resources Control Board, waste water is often treated and then pumped into rivers. That river water flows into neighboring water districts where it is used as regular drinking water.

“Anyone out there taking drinking water downstream from a wastewater treatment plant discharge — which, I promise you, you’re all doing — is already drinking toilet to tap,” Esquivel said to the Associated Press. “All water is recycled. What we have here are standards, science and — importantly — monitoring that allow us to have the faith that it is pure water.”

These somewhat icky realities of current water treatment practices notwithstanding, public perception of waste water treatment will almost certainly be a tall mountain to climb for water companies. According to the Associated Press, a waste water treatment center in San Jose is offering tours to the general public to educate the public about the process and ease any concerns they may harbor about the water they will soon be using to cook, bathe and drink. Kirsten Struve, assistant officer for the water supply division at the Santa Clara Valley Water District told the Associated Press this water is already being used to irrigate parks and soccer fields and such.

“We live in California where the drought happens all the time. And with climate change, it will only get worse,” Struve said. “And this is a drought-resistant supply that we will need in the future to meet the demands of our communities.”

Water companies across the Golden State are gearing up to begin treating waste water as soon as possible. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for instance, plans to produce up to 150 million gallons per day of treated waste water, according to the Associated Press. In fact, nearly half of San Diego’s drinking water is slated to come from treated waste water by 2035.

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