Toilet to Tap: A Tough Concept to Swallow?

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By Julien Gervreau

August 10, 2011 was an exciting day for the wastewater reuse industry.  Sparked by a drought of epic proportions that has gripped much of the state of Texas this year, two separate articles published by CNN and the Associated Press respectively pointed the lens of the national media on one West Texas municipality’s plans to break ground on a $13 million treatment facility that would turn the community’s wastewater into drinking water. Six days later, NPR followed this breaking news with an article of its own that focused on the psychological aspects of drinking what has not so affectionately come to be know as “toilet to tap” water.

I was wrapping up a summer internship with a communications firm that serves as an advisor to the WateReuse Association, one of the world’s foremost leaders in researching and advocating for safe and sustainable water sources when the story broke. As the firm’s dedicated social media responder, I had a pretty interesting week taking to the Twitterverse and following public response to this news.  As one might expect, the thousands of reactions to these various stories ran the gauntlet from excitement to amazement to speculation on being able to drink one’s beer twice to outright disgust. It’s this disgust factor that needs to be addressed.

The science behind direct potable water reuse (DPR), which the “toilet to tap” term refers to, is fairly straightforward. According to “Direct Potable Reuse: A Path Forward” a 2011 study released by the WateReuse Association, DPR involves introducing purified water from an engineered storage buffer (i.e. a wastewater treatment plant) into a potable water supply system that is earmarked for human consumption. Indirect potable reuse (IPR), takes DPR a step further by introducing treated water into a community’s supply through groundwater recharge, where it sits in a natural aquifer, called an environmental buffer, for a minimum period of time. Both DPR and IPR are widely regarded as safe and reliable drinking water alternatives and are increasingly being adopted by communities faced with water supply issues.

For example, Orange County, California has an IPR plant capable of processing 70 million gallons of raw sewage per day into drinking water. In an area as water-strapped as southern California, this is the equivalent of manna from heaven. The NPR article referenced earlier quotes a UC Santa Cruz environmental studies professor who asserts that the science behind wastewater treatment actually suggests that it is cleaner than most naturally occurring water systems, and that putting treated wastewater back into the natural system actually makes it less clean.

Advances in water recycling technologies should be heralded, not derided. Unfortunately, the psychological stigma that accompanies the “toilet to tap” terminology is tough for the average individual to swallow. With the wealth of data and scientific research that supports the quality and safety of DPR and IPR recycled water, maybe it’s time that this concept gets a new moniker. The floor is officially open for suggestions. What do you think?


Julien Gervreau is an MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School where he is focusing on water conservation and reuse and renewable energy. He is a cofounder of the Presidio Water Club. Follow him on Twitter @omatters.

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4 responses

  1. ick….and yay! Those who object either don’t understand the importance of sustainable water sourcing, or fail to acknowledge the “ick” factor in water travelling down mountains, through streams, and other “dirty” things. Keep up the good work; water is pivotal!

    1. Not an ‘ick’ but a concern – Are the current wastewater treatment systems able to completely eliminate pharmaceuticals and trace contaminants from the water? These are a real & increasing risk, even with recent efforts to capture & incinerate unused drugs in hospital settings, as opposed to washing them down the drain.

  2. UGH. “Toilet to Tap”: Tough to Swallow! The point is to get folks to support this, right?

    I don’t know about you, but I do not even drink from plastic bottles, let alone toilets (I understand the process so no need for correction or explanation. I’m addressing the visceral aversion caused by “Toilet to Tap”).

    MUST change that name. Whoever slapped that one together has no business naming anything (Wow, check out the catchy alliteration). There are plenty of skillful naming and branding consultants (I, for one) who would have done this pro bono and come up with something that wouldn’t have us doubling over with disgust (Hey, those toilets really are handy!)

  3. Julien, YOu are not only timely, but what you write about is absolutely necessary. The water shortage that we will face in 10 years will be so significant that unless we begin to think about this right now, there will be water wars. It will make Chinatown (the movie) seem like kindergarten. Glad to know that you are beginning to help get this topic in the minds of all of us. Keep up the good work.

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