Water resource recovery facility (photo by Paul Cockrell)

Opinion Column: New Water Ethic Should Include Drinking Recycled Wastewater

By Steven Moore, Ross Valley Sanitary District, Wastewater News

This opinion article originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal newspaper and website. Subscription required. Republished with permission.

Steven Moore, GM, Ross Valley Sanitary District

We are water, literally, by weight and so much more. It’s the sparkle in your eye, the sweat on your brow and the blood in your veins. All life and communities are totally dependent on a healthy water supply.

These truths are often overlooked in times of plenty, but when water’s scarcity becomes plainly evident, we are forced to reckon with doing what is right, because so much is at stake: our lives, livelihoods and quality of life. We should therefore embrace a water ethic.

In other parts of California with higher populations than Marin, this idea of a water ethic has taken hold and resulted in sustainable water supply projects in the ground and in the works. It is past time for Marin to join this community of doers. Each of us can participate.

The water ethic is a personal commitment to know where our water comes from, how much water we use, what we put into the water before it leaves our homes and businesses, and where it goes after we use it. The water ethic also includes a commitment to use the water more than once whenever possible. Much like we have learned to minimize single-use plastic, part of the water ethic is to minimize single-use water.

When we’re done with it, most Marin water goes to San Francisco Bay with negligible ecological benefit. We can and should reuse this water. Water is so precious in Marin and its use so consequential that, like plastic, we should not use it only once.

We try to minimize single-use plastic to help the oceans and conserve energy. We should minimize single-use water to help the rivers and stretch our water supply during droughts. Other communities such as Orange County, the Inland Empire, the Monterey-Salinas area, Los Angeles and the coastal town of Cambria are reusing wastewater, stormwater and salty groundwater for drinking water. All of it is equally safe as Marin’s current supply.

More than 30 cities in California are going to add over a half-million acre-feet annually of wastewater-to-drinking water projects in the next five years, including some central coast communities, San Diego and Silicon Valley.

As we face the challenges of limited water supply, Marin should embrace a water ethic that includes minimizing single-use water.  We should join the movement, do the right thing and invest now in water recycling, or wastewater “potable reuse,” to enhance our potable drinking water supply.

Drink purified wastewater? Absolutely. If you think about it, we already do. There is only one water. The impurities move in and out of it throughout its cycle. The same principles astronauts utilize on the space station apply here in water-scarce California. They have proven safe and reliable for decades right here in our state.

In Marin we reuse less than 2% of our wastewater – mostly for landscape irrigation (aka lawns). While this is helpful, these uses are limited and shrinking over time. We need to turn it up a notch.

Studies show the Central Marin Sanitation Agency wastewater plant in San Rafael can provide almost as much potable water as the Marin Municipal Water District imports from Sonoma County, one-fourth of its water supply. This additional supply would dwindle if a drought continued for many years. So, while it does not complete the supply portfolio, it would be a significant step forward.

To have a sustainable water supply with the climate changing, we should embrace a new water ethic in all its dimensions. This includes tapping into a local sustainable source – wastewater – which will reduce our drawdown of local reservoirs, extending water supply in times of scarcity.

We are water. With so much at stake, what we do about water is an ethical choice. We should avoid single-use water if we can. Recycling water for drinking is ethical and smart, like Marin. We can afford it. We can’t afford not to do it. Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

Steven Moore, of Sausalito, is a former member of the California Water Resources Control Board and the regional water board. He is general manager of the Ross Valley Sanitary District and an advisor to the Marin Coalition for Water Solutions. Article originally published by the Marin Independent Journal, republished with permission.