Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Toilet to Tap or Perfectly Potable? California Uses New Treatment Technology to Increase Water Resources
Sarah Kuck, 15 Aug 08


Pressed for water resources, California's Orange County has spent millions of dollars to build and recently open a state-of-the-art water treatment system that processes and transforms formerly flushed sewage into drinkable tap water.

The Orange County Water Replenishment System cost about $480 million and took about a decade to build. But the lengthy construction period had more to do with mindset than actual development obstacles, as Bottlemania author Elizabeth Royte recently wrote in the New York Times:

The stumbling block was psychological, not architectural. An aversion to feces is nearly universal, and as critics of the process are keen to point out, getting sewage out of drinking water was one of the most important public health advances of the last 150 years.

But as the population swells, the aquifers dry up and the surrounding area snowpacks melt, southern Californian's -- whether they think it's great or gross -- are running out of options, and will have to continue to look for new ways to reduce and reuse:

Saltwater from the Pacific Ocean was entering the county’s water supply, drawn in by overpumping from the groundwater basin, says Ron Wildermuth, who at the time we talked was the water district’s spokesman. Moreover, population growth meant more wastewater, which meant building a second sewage pipe, five miles into the Pacific — a $200 million proposition. Recycling the effluent solved the disposal problem and the saltwater problem in one fell swoop. A portion of the plant’s filtered output is now injected into the ground near the coast, to act as a pressurized barrier against saltwater from the ocean. Factor in Southern California’s near chronic drought, the county’s projected growth (another 300,000 to 500,000 thirsty people by 2020) and the rising cost of importing water from the Colorado River and from Northern California (the county pays $530 per acre-foot of imported water, versus $520 per acre-foot of reclaimed water), and rebranding sewage as a valuable resource became a no-brainer.

As we move into an age of tighter and tighter ecological limits, choices (and controversies) like this one will become increasingly it's pretty interesting to read how the process works.

Photo credit: Dwight Eschliman for the New York Times

Bookmark and Share


Has there ever been any attempt to encourage limited recycling systems for water within homes? Like promoting plumbing that stores used shower and sink water in a tank and uses that water (maybe with some low-intensity filtering) for toilets?

Posted by: donald on 16 Aug 08

Seems to me like the wise choice would be to keep feces and urine out of our drinking water in the first place. I have envisioned one possible solution for our fecophobic culture: Composting toilet services.

People who don't have a problem composting their own bodily resources can go on doing it themselves, but for the majority who consider it unthinkable, maybe it would be more palatable to pay a small monthly fee for someone to come by at regular intervals and "take care of things" without even entering the house. These toilets should be low-maintenance, urine-diverting units with bins accessible from outside the house. The urine can flow to a pile of _________ (pick your carbon source) in some kind of ventilated container where the nitrogen combines with the carbon to create compost (or a great mulch if it's harvested early). The feces can fall into another container where (with a scoop of any number of biologically active, carbon-rich substances at every deposit) it will compost on its own with proper ventilation and temperature regulation. There can be a number of bins that are rotated between "active" and "resting" status (like a large "lazy Susan"). This can largely be out-of-sight out-of-mind for the user, with a toilet that looks pretty normal and a worker who stops by to take care of things.

Of course, this won't work with every house or every person or every county, etc. but it's one solution that could put a huge dent in our water and energy usage while producing compost that helps us grow more food, prevent erosion, etc. Compost also filters and slowly releases rainwater when applied to the land. Composting toilets would also prevent sewage overflows into our surface waters when municipal treatment plants are overwhelmed--less water would be delivered to the plants from toilets and less storm water would indundate the plants during heavy rains due to the compost's absorption and slow release of rainwater.

This idea could be implemented through long-term contracts with private entities (though I'm not sure if it would be a profitable venture) or municipal governments could implement some version of it.

Overcoming regulatory barriers to something like this in most locations would require a significant public education campaign and grassroots movement to push governments in the right direction. New peer-reviewed studies would need to be performed and relevant previous studies brought to light to demonstrate the safety and quantify the benefits of the strategy.

Damn...I better get to work.

I'd like to hear some of your thoughts. Would people go for this or do you think most people would be wierded out by it?

For great humanure and urine management information, check out The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins and Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld.

Posted by: greensolutions on 17 Aug 08

We've been having a similar issue in Melbourne.
While our water storages have about a 5 year capacity, they have been getting very low in the last ten years (I predict they will be regularly running dry in another 8-10 years, if things keep going as they have been)
A water recycling plant has been, erm... poo-pooed in favour of a nice shiny desalination plant (and diversion of water from the Goulburn river...which is in an even more parlous state!)

I have suggested that breweries would be a reasonable target for taking up and promoting this technology ('sucking more piss' is supposed to be a national pastime, and they actually like very pure water)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 17 Aug 08

BTW pristine mountain stream water would probably come in mid-range in your glass chart. No, it's not the wombats! It's the tannins from the trees.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 17 Aug 08

I moved to Sothern California (San Diego) 4 years ago and was astonished at how much water is wasted. Every morning there are streams of water trickling down the street from lawns. I don't even pay for water at my apartment and my landlord could care less if I'm using less water. So the attitude among most SoCAl residents is: "Why should I care if I'm not paying for it". The only way Sothern Californians will reduce water consumption is to raise the price of water.

Posted by: Mr. White on 18 Aug 08

I wonder how bad the fresh water problem will have to get before we challenge the wisdom of pooping in it to begin with. The fact that we view the practice as "civilized", and will spend $480 million dollars and ten years of effort so that we can keep doing it, leads me to believe that things will have to get a lot worse.

Posted by: Mark Sardella on 23 Aug 08

@greensolutions - I like your idea actually, you are right for the vast majority of people managing their own humanure would be a "bridge too far", even if they are keen to save water etc. But having this as a regular composting "service" seems possible and a good goal.

Remember this was how it worked in many cities only 100 years ago, toilets were still "outhouses" facing a back lane where the night porters would come to make regular collections!

Posted by: DigitalPat on 23 Aug 08

this is how it worked in Tokyo (edo period) too... night porters collected "night soil"... and prized higher income poop over lower income poop for nutrient quality

probably the same today. do you want poop that came from an organic food eating Marin resident, or some guys at the local project who eat doritos, mcdonalds and cola for breakfast?

Posted by: ken on 26 Aug 08



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg