by Susanna Pilkerton
California is currently in the fourth year of one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. With water supplies dwindling and the Sierra Nevada snow pack at a record low, California is looking for new ways to preserve water, as well as how to help those that have been affected by the drought. In January, Governor Jerry Brown and his administration published a plan to make California become more resilient in the face of both droughts and floods called the “Water Action Plan;” at this time Governor Brown also declared “a drought state of emergency” reported ca.gov.
The Water Action Plan enumerates a number of goals for the state, such as managing and preparing for dry periods, expanding the water storage capacity, improving groundwater management and increasing flood protection. The plan also briefly mentions providing funding for “secure waste water systems for disadvantaged communities;” it is later made clear that this would only be for small disadvantaged communities that do not have any other access to clean drinking water.
The question of whether or not to use reclaimed waste water often boils down to one main issue: the mental picture. Brent Haddad, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, has been studying the issue of water reuse for 14 years and has come to a realization. The public perception of reusing waste water is that it is just plain gross, and this is not going to change. In an interview with NPR, Haddad is quoted saying, “A scientific answer is not going to satisfy someone who is feeling revulsion, you have to approach it in a different way.”
The process of reclaiming waste water takes part in three steps. First, the water is filtered through pores that are smaller than the width of a human hair (ultra-filtration). Next, the water passes through a chemical blocking membrane (reverse osmosis), and finally, ultraviolet light is used along with an oxidizing chemical to break down any possible contaminants that are left in the water (enhanced oxidation). The result is pure water that more than meets the government’s health guidelines. Crystal Yezman, a worker at San Jose’s new Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center explained to “All Things Considered” on NPR, “The Department of Health has acknowledged that we are removing 99.99 percent of all pathogens.”
Still, the mental image of the water coming directly from a toilet may be too large of an obstacle for some to surpass. Marin County resident Summer Slais is one of those who would not feel comfortable with using reclaimed water, she says, “I don’t like not knowing where it’s been. It freaks me out that there’s a small chance that some feces could pass through undetected.” While this chance is minuscule at .01 percent, it is large enough to make many hesitant about using reclaimed waste water.