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Last updateMon, 27 Nov 2017 12am

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Getting the most out of our water supply

This summer offers a full range of topics to write about. There is politics, more politics, the Olympics, and the economy. They’re all the normal fare for columnists.  So, having said that you may wonder why, for this week’s column, my attention has focused, of all things on waste water recycling.  Municipal wastewater treatment, and I have visited several plants, isn’t necessarily an attractive business, and to some the whole topic may appear, at least on the surface, just a bit dull.  But, hang on, give me a chance and I think you’ll find it’s much more relevant and interesting than you might think.

Right now 32 states are in some kind of drought status.  In the Midwest it’s particularly severe, reaching or exceeding the severity of the drought of 1956.  Before the year is finished, it will probably be rated as the worst drought since the great depression.  In Virginia, what most of us consider, what with our rivers and frequent rain, a fairly wet state, we have nonetheless had summer droughts 15 of the last 30 years.  Many of these have involved water restrictions for homeowners, which for most of us is an inconvenience, but for farmers, the consequences are far more severe.  Water usage increases and so does the cost of growing crops.  Every type of agriculture suffers during a water shortage.  Everything from hay cuttings important to livestock, to string beans, apples, peaches, strawberries, corn, and soy beans.  Even beekeepers notice the effects of a severe drought on their colonies.

Of course, the problem, almost always comes down to the supply of water, and ever so gradually, even in our region, the demand for water continues to increase, while the available supply has trouble keeping up.  In some regions of the country, Florida for example, where amazingly, fresh water is rather pricey, the situation is severe.  In areas where you would expect water to be scarce, like Phoenix, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Los Angeles, California water is a major political topic.  There is never enough.

That’s why strategies for recycling water and more efficiently managing its use are so important.  Going far afield, to a place where water is far more scarce than almost any region of the world, the Middle East, Israel, has been a pioneer in waste water recycling.  The idea is pretty straight forward.  Using fully treated drinking water for agricultural and industrial purposes isn’t efficient.  But, using recycled water, treated to what’s called the tertiary level, just shy of being drinking quality, and occasionally partially treated with chemicals, is cheaper, more efficient, and significantly stretches the supply.  In Israel, thanks to the funding of the Jewish National Fund,  there are 220 recycled water reservoirs.  Use of tertiary treated water in agriculture has cut costs, made crops more economical, and has made Israel, and this is according to the United Nations, a world leader in agricultural efficiency.

This isn’t radical technology.  Oceangoing vessels have been using this concept for years.  Passenger liners and cruise ships have always been hard pressed to provide fresh water for their passengers and crews.  So, to economize, rather than desalinate sea water, or fully treat their waste water, they use partially treated water, considered non-potable, but still having reached a tertiary treatment level, for doing laundry, use in toilets, and in cleaning.   

Here in U.S. it’s an idea that’s been catching on.  There are waste water recycling programs in Redwood City, California, San Antonio, Texas, Orlando and St. Petersburg, Florida, and Tucson, Arizona.  These are all states with severe water shortages, but even Virginia has a recycled water project.  The Yorktown Refinery (that’s what they call their water treatment plant) in order to save money for itself and its customers has launched a program to provide water treated to the tertiary level for industrial purposes, tree irrigation, and to charge water for the fire protection system when not in use. It’s economical on every level. It saves the utility money, it saves the customers money, and through more efficient water use, it’s good for the environment.

Waste Water recycling won’t solve our drought problems or eliminate water shortages, but it can mitigate them.  And, as proven in Israel, and as has been shown in demonstration projects in the American West, it’s a strategy that works.  Virginia water suppliers should be paying attention.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

  

 

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