Bay Area residents OK with drinking purified toilet water

Julia Prodis Sulek and Sophie Mattson, Mercury News staff writers, 6/23/15

Bay Area residents consider California's historic drought so dire that a majority say they would be willing to drink purified toilet water.

That's not the only finding in a Bay Area Council poll released Wednesday that used to be considered hard to swallow.

Many Bay Area residents appear to be putting aside some long-held notions about the environment, health and public costs to support bolder options to increase the water supply.

While 58 percent of those polled say they favor adding appropriately treated recycled water to the drinking water supply, 63 percent say they support building more dams and reservoirs, with 23 percent strongly in favor.

"That's a high number in an environmentally conscious place like the Bay Area," said Rufus Jeffris, a spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a pro-business advocacy group. "This all suggests that people want to look more seriously at these types of solutions that, in the past, haven't had this great acceptance either because of environmental, health or cost reasons."

Only 36 percent of those surveyed in the online poll said they supported a $5 "drought fee" on top of their water bill. But 88 percent of those polled say they support the expanded use of recycled sewage water - which is mostly used at golf courses, carwashes and other outdoor spaces - and 75 percent favor the construction of more desalination plants to filter seawater into drinking water. 

"I'd do basically anything to solve the water crisis," said Taylor Hildreth, 25, a restaurant host in Campbell finishing up a round at San Jose Municipal Golf Course on Tuesday. "I'm even in favor of cutting off the water supply to Southern California a little!"

Funny, the survey didn't go that far, but it seemed people were willing to go out of their comfort zones in the midst of California's epic drought now in its fourth year.

"I'm a squeamish person, but I think I could do it," said Susan Kay, of San Jose, about drinking treated sewage water, joking, "just close your eyes and plug your nose."

Drinking recycled water is a reality for residents of Orange County and Wichita Falls, Texas. 

In 2008, the Orange County Water District began filtering treated sewage water in a three-prong process - purifying it through reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light - and infusing it into aquifers. It remains there for a year before being pumped into the drinking water system. 

This produces roughly 100 million gallons of recycled water each day, making it the world's largest "indirect potable reuse program," according to Mike Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District. 

After suffering from a devastating drought, Wichita Falls established its water recycling program last year. Unlike Orange County, Wichita Falls draws water from surface reservoirs rather than rechargeable aquifers. 

"There is a yuck factor to it at first; it's a psychological barrier," said Wichita Falls City Manager Darron Leiker. However, "this certainly helped us survive the drought. Without that, I truly believe we ran a high risk of running out of water."

Recycled water has been used in San Jose and other cities in the Bay Area for more than a decade but only for irrigating golf courses, landscaping and industrial uses - not for drinking.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews and other local leaders drank glasses of treated wastewater in April while calling for expanding the use of recycled water, and mixing it with existing groundwater to serve back to the public to drink. 

The proposal could get a boost from legislation in Sacramento to speed up environmental approvals on toilet-to-tap projects. 

Fifteen years ago, community backlash halted a toilet-to-tap project in the Dublin San Ramon Services District, which instead limited its water recycling for irrigation. Now, the water district is exploring new technologies once again to provide the East Bay cities with recycled drinking water. 

"People are using more technology today than they did 15 years ago," said Sue Stephenson, a spokeswoman for the district. "Maybe that will make it more easier for people to appreciate trust and understand that we have the capability to clean up wastewater so you can drink it." The poll also found that most residents believe preparing for drought is an important regional priority, but they also said they have already been pushed to the limits with their conservation efforts.

Along with finding better storage and water treatment solutions, residents also favor tightening efficiency standards on farmers, who use about 80 percent of the state's water. 

More than 1,000 Bay Area residents participated in the online poll, which was conducted in April by EMC Research, a public opinion research firm based in Oakland.

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