USA TODAY, 2/8/15
CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Dogs drink water from toilets, so why can't their owners warm up to the idea?
Highly processed sewage, which water experts call indirect or direct potable reuse, is becoming more of a reality here as providers scramble to find enough water to meet current and future demand.
But public perception and the unknown are two major hurdles.
"I don't think people here are ready for the idea yet," said Andy Fenske, who operates the waste-water system in this Southwest Florida city of 165,000 residents.
Even with the obvious "ick" factor comes the chance, however slight, that Florida's rivers, lakes and aquifers could become contaminated through processes supposed to protect them.
Some worry that no matter how much the water is purified to rid it of bacteria and other organisms, it still could be tainted with prescription medications or other chemicals that people tend to flush or pour down the drain.
Utilities in places like Cape Coral use reclaimed, treated sewage to conserve drinking water while providing a safe source of irrigation. Some urban areas, though, have been working on a toilet-to-tap drinking water supply for years.
"The bacteria is one of the easier things to deal with. It's all the other viruses and pharmaceuticals that are more difficult," said Linda Young, executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network. "I'm not convinced they can get that water 100% clean.
"It makes total sense to me to use reclaimed water for agriculture," she said. "We shouldn't be using drinking water aquifers to supply farms and industrial uses anyway."
Florida's water hogs
Technologies like desalination, reverse osmosis and recycled water are used around the world: Israel reuses about 70% of its waste water while more than 50% of Saudi Arabia's drinking water comes from desalination, according to a UNESCO report. Western states such as California are warming to the idea of recycled water.
The South Florida Water Management District has encouraged local utilities and municipalities to explore alternative water sources for future needs. Reverse-osmosis systems can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but the long-term benefits are much better than simply avoiding the growing need for drinkable water, water managers say.
Using expensive or unpopular technology is understandable for extremely dry regions, critics say. But running low on drinking water is shameful for a state that gets 5 or so feet of rain each year — just a few inches shy of what states like Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming see combined.
"We're the water hogs of the world," said Young, who spent more than a year visiting and learning about Florida's coastal water-treatment facilities. "And Florida is the water hog of the United States."
Because Florida has the third largest population in the nation, demand will continue to rise. Nearly 8 million people live in the 16-county South Florida Water District, which starts south of Orlando and includes the southwest and southeast coasts, the Everglades and Florida Keys.
Western states and nations like Saudi Arabia, which the Saudi embassy said gets 70% of urban drinking water from desalination plants, have long looked at how to best conserve and use drinkable water.
Some areas in Florida have as well, but consumption rates here are 158 gallons per person per day. That's nearly 10 times the rate used by people in Denmark — home of the world's most extensive water control system — according to a UNESCO report on sustainable water supplies.
Astronauts use recycled sewage water to turn an orange powder into Tang, the third-most popular food item in space, according to NASA.
Many municipalities and counties have turned to reverse osmosis, which forces brackish water through a network of membrane cells to remove the salt, as a way to meet growing drinking-water demands.
What about turning ocean water into drinking water?
"Technically, you can do it, and it's being done in a lot of parts in the world. California has a couple of facilities in construction, but it's expensive," said Mark Elsner, a water-supply specialist for the South Florida water district. The Florida Keys also does it, but the process uses large amounts of energy.
In Southwest Florida, authorities push fresh water off the land through an extensive network of pumps, canals, levees, berms and ditches. A little more than a century ago, much of that water would sit on the surface for months at a time, flowing slowly from the north edge of the Kissimmee River south to Florida Bay.
"With our 60 inches of rain, only 7 inches of that percolates into the ground," Young said. "The rest is evaporating, running off into the ocean. So, we're not replenishing those aquifers with rain water, and every year we take more."
The South Florida water district has released more than 130 billion gallons from Lake Okeechobee, Florida's largest freshwater lake, in the past three months. That's roughly 13% of its capacity, so that means alternative water-supply sources are a must.
"The concept is to capture it while it is available, store it underground and retrieve that water during the dry season," Elsner said. "Unfortunately, 70% of that falls in the wet season." One of Florida's challenges is capturing the water for later use.
Cape Coral is known for its extensive canal system, one of the largest in the world. And while the grid-like development is not ideal for green space or wildlife habitat, the city has made the best of the situation by recycling fresh water from those canals and using it for irrigation, which cuts down on the use of drinking water.
The city's drinking water source is an aquifer 800 feet below ground called the Floridan, which contains water that fell in North Florida about 10,000 years ago.
The irrigation water is sent to homes around the city, and consumers can use it for anything from watering their lawns to washing their cars.
"We know at build-out of the city we're looking at half a million people," said Andy Fenske, acting superintendent of Cape Coral Utilities and brother of Brian Fenske. "But the infrastructure is already in place."
Young said she'll continue to monitor water sources, quantity and quality and fight the toilet-to-tap push.
"I talked to people around the state and the Florida Department of Health, it's pretty encouraging the amount of effort going into that problem," she said. "I think turning that problem into an asset is possible, but for (irrigation) uses."
Drinking water by the numbers
Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, World Health Organization, United Nations, South Florida Water Management District