Rethink & Reuse

March 6, 2012

Shifting paradigms open new doors to recovery and reuse

About the author: Benjamin H. Grumbles is president of the Clean Water America Alliance. Views expressed in this column may not necessarily reflect those of the Alliance or its members. Grumbles can be reached at [email protected].


The road to recovery is paved with good inventions... and supportive attitudes— both of which need revamping from time to time if we are going to manage water and waste successfully in the coming years.

One of my favorite resource recovery and beneficial reuse success stories takes place in Arizona. The Arizona Department of Transportation, the private sector and others have been partnering for years to build and retrofit highways with rubberized asphalt, an alternative, eco-friendly material made from shredded old tires. The result: smaller waste tire piles (sitting ugly, waiting to catch fire in the desert sun or attract vermin and spread disease), quieter roadways and creation of good jobs that convert waste to wealth.

On the waterfront, similar success stories grow bigger and better each day, which is good because we will run out of time, money and breathing room if we do not innovate. Fortunately, the glass is more than half full as reclaimed water and “wastewater” and recovered nutrients, biosolids, biogas and heat all vie for attention and support.

Recycling on the Rise

Wastewater recycling is not a new movement, but it holds promise for our water future like never before. The WateReuse Assn. has been around since 2000, successfully promoting the effort on a national scale. States like California, Florida, Texas and Arizona have done most of the recycling work, but others are gaining steam—good news at a time when population, climate and other stressors put a squeeze on existing supplies.

According to the California Recycled Water Task Force, the state has the potential to recycle enough to meet 30% to 50% of household water needs of its projected growth. California has more than 300 water recycling plants operating, with 4,800 sites using recycled water as of 2004. Forty-six percent of the water is used for agricultural irrigation, 21% for landscape irrigation, 14% for groundwater recharge and 19% for all other uses.

Doing More

We can all do more, especially for municipal wastewater reuse. Arizona’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Water Sustainability focused on technical, legal, social and cultural barriers to wastewater reuse in its December 2010 report. It included 63 recommendations for recycling, reuse and conservation. Other states are implementing or exploring similar efforts.

An important new study will further boost the rethink-and-reuse movement. In January 2012, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Water Science and Technology Board issued “Water Reuse: Potential for Expanding the Nation’s Water Supply Through Reuse of Municipal Wastewater.” (Note: I serve on the board but was not appointed to it until after the report was finished; I also offered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] sup- port for the study several years ago when I was EPA Assistant Administrator for Water.)

The NAS study analyzes the scientific, technical, legal, cultural and psychological barriers and risks and calls for specific actions. It builds the case for more reuse, analyzing real versus perceived health risks as well as growing problems with water scarcity in some regions.It claims advanced treatment and reuse of wastewater can boost water supplies of coastal cities by as much as 27%. Along the way it interjects some phrases worth noting and understanding, such as "sewage farming" (which still occurs abundantly in Mexico City) and "de facto reuse" (which occurs everywhere given the hydrologic cycle and the sociological fact that we all live downstream).

On nutrients, another one of my favorite topics, the battle lines and high stakes are becoming clearer. State-based reports under the Clean Water Act (CWA) show a growing problem with nutrients, leading to increasing numbers of impaired water bodies, triggering more stringent pollution budgets (total maximum daily loads [TMDLs])— all to fix a problem that could have been prevented or reduced through more creative and collective efforts. Many of the controversial permitting decisions and regulatory revisions center on nitrogen and phosphorus loadings from cities, suburbs, farms and pastures, and the impacts on aquifers, streams and coasts. Concentrated animal feeding operations, construction site runoff and advanced tertiary treatment at municipal wastewater plants are at issue in different EPA proposals, especially the costs and benefits of controls.

The storm continues to brew as EPA and CWA controls hit home with water quality standards driving permitting decisions and technology choices. Nutrient pollution consistently ranks as one of the top three water quality problems across the country. More than 5,000 TMDLs are devoted to nutrient- impaired waters, and the numbers will continue to grow if we fail to change strategies and step up efforts.

Changing Mindsets

Clean Water America Alliance, which pays my salary, believes environmental and economic progress will go hand-in-hand if we can shift the paradigm from “flush and go” or “treat and discharge” to “recover and reuse.” Our urban water sustainability council includes members who are recovering and reusing nutrients, biosolids and biogas. Companies are offering tools and technologies to recover nutrients and create valuable products, allowing former so-called wastewater utilities to become centers of reclamation and regeneration benefitting local waters, lands and economies.

We also are reviewing and rethinking the role of home sink incinerators. Food scraps sent through sewers to well performing wastewater facilities may be the best thing since sliced bread; at least if the utilities view the influent as a resource for mining nutrients and generating energy, and deploy the right technologies and management strategies. The result may be more food that fuel water facilities and less waste at landfills.

The more we look, the more we learn: Changing mindsets can open new doors and lead to cleaner water, greener energy and a brighter future.

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