Elizabeth Weise, USA Today 6/3/15
SINGAPORE — They call it "NEWwater" but it's just the opposite: recycled sewage water packed in clear plastic bottles, ready for drinking.
Surrounded by oceans but lacking adequate clean water resources, Singapore hopes to get 55% of its drinking water from recycled sewer water by 2060.
The level might seem ludicrous if so many other countries weren't confronting their own water shortages.
As a mega drought extends to a fourth year for California, lawmakers are trying to get residents to live with less. The efforts have been successful, with California cities and towns using 13.5% less water in April 2015 than they did in April 2013, according to the California Water Board.
But it's still not enough to make up for the lack of rain, so water districts are also considering new sources— say, the Pacific Ocean — that for years were considered too expensive. Recycled water is another option that's coming to the fore as affordable and environmentally friendly.
"In many countries you call it sewage, but that sound so … messy," said George Madhavan, director of corporate development with Singapore's Public Utilities Board.
"Basically, you drink the water, you go to the toilet, you pee and we collect it back and clean it," he said.
Today NEWwater makes up 30% of Singapore's water, almost all of it used for industrial purposes. But bottles are also given away at civic events to get people used to the idea of drinking what once would have been poured into the ocean.
Singapore isn't the only place looking for new ways to get potable water.
Orange County, Calif., Wichita Falls and Big Springs in Texas and Fairfax County, Va. all use recycled water, said Zachary Dorsey, the communications director for WateReuse, a non-profit in Alexandria, Va.
The recycling process produces water that's extremely pure and extremely clean, using technology has existed for years. Effluent is first sent through a microfiltration system, then through reverse osmosis and finally sterilized under UV light.
That's simply a version of what happens naturally, water experts say. Ocean water evaporates to become rain and falls into lakes and rivers or ends up deep underground. Eventually it finds its way back in the sea and the entire process begins again.
"The water you drink today is the same water the dinosaurs drank. Water recycling just speeds up the process," Dorsey said.
Countries like Singapore foster innovation because they have to, providing lessons that the United States can learn from, experts say.
"One positive aspect of this drought is that it's going to force us to think more responsibly about water and innovation," said Steven Finn, managing director of ResponsEcology, a sustainability consulting firm.
Recycling water has multiple benefits, said Susan Leal, a water utility consultant and co-author of Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource.
It requires less energy than desalinization and is cheaper than pumping water long distances. There's also less wastewater discharge into rivers and oceans, which helps control water pollution, she said.
So far, just as in Singapore, U.S. water districts either use recycled water for industrial or agricultural purposes or add it to water heading toward water treatment plants.
The Texas towns ship recycled water directly to their drinking water plants, where it's blended with other water sources and then sent to the tap, Dorsey said.
In Fairfax County, the drinking water is mixed with a surface water supply.
The biggest is Orange County, Calif., which is on track to recycle 130 million gallons of sewage water every day.
That recycled water doesn't go directly into the drinking water system. Instead, it's pumped underground as part of the district's groundwater replenishment system.
There it mixes with other fresh water and eventually is pumped back up, sent to water treatment plants, cleaned again and piped to thirsty Californians.
While it might seem to make more sense to just drink the recycled water, two things get in the way. The first is public perception.
"We need to overcome that 'yuck' factor and embrace the natural systems that have worked for thousands of years," Finn said.
"Water is naturally filtered as it goes through the earth and we've all been drinking it for a long time and we're all fine," he said. Getting the public to embrace recycled water will require "reinforcing that fact and tying it to nature."
There's also a practical reason to send the recycled water through water treatment plants— that's where water distribution systems begin. "If you wanted to pipe recycled water direct to customers you'd have to redo the system," Dorsey said.
While that day might come, it won't happen anytime soon. Under California law, utilities aren't allowed to sell recycled water as potable unless it is first blended with raw water in the environment. However that could change in 2016 when the state
Water Resources Control Board's Division of Drinking Water is set to decide whether it should be allowed, Dorsey said.