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Toilet to Tap: A Tough Concept to Swallow?

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

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.

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.