Drinking reclaimed wastewater – the pros and cons

Several years ago I got to tour the local wastewater treatment plant. Towards the end of the tour, the group I was part of was shown the machinery that did the final “scrubbing”.

In explaining the process, our guide mentioned that one of the final steps included putting the “cleaned” water through reverse osmosis. That brought the former wastewater up to drinking standards!

But is reclaimed wastewater really safe for drinking?

“Expanding water reuse could significantly increase the nation’s water resource, particularly in coastal communities,” said Rhodes Trussell, president of Trussell Technologies in Pasadena, California, and chair of the committee that wrote a new report on the safety of wastewater water filtration technology.

Is reclaimed water from a water treatment plant safe to drink?

Although treated or reclaimed wastewater is used by communities for irrigation and industrial use, its general use for drinking may have hidden issues.

One of the more serious of these is the issue of pharmaceuticals being dumped down drains and toilets. These make it into our sewer systems and into our wastewater. And as yet no one test has been developed that can adequately and accurately identify all of the chemicals that are present in our water.

There are already existing examples of successful reclaimed water programs. The Groundwater Replenishment System in Orange County, California utilizes wastewater that’s treated above and beyond state and federal drinking standards. then is released into local groundwater recharge basins, where it will eventually be available for municipal or private use. The idea behind the program is to help extend the life of local aquifers which are rapidly being drained and cannot simply get replenished.

NEWatere meets 30% of Singapore’s water needs Photo by Jerry Wong, Flickr

Another program exists in Singapore, where they utilize NEWater. Part of Singapore’s sustainability program, this highly treated former sewage water is utilized as drinking water and currently constitutes 30 percent of Singapore’s total water usage.

Even if the reclaimed recycled water were deemed truly safe to drink, would consumers adapt to drinking it? After all, the stigma of drinking water that was once sludge, for some, is equal perhaps to scraping off grease from your garage floor and cooking with it. Unappetizing to say the least!

Still, there may come a time when turning reclaimed water into clean H2O is a viable solution. As the global water crisis becomes more prominent, more creative solutions must “show up”.  It certainly tickles the imagination.

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4 Responses

  1. Is storm water filtered through sand and rocks or harvested rainwater more cleaner and less expensive than waste water for drinking after reclaiming?.

  2. What if the wastewater was prescreened, than distilled, and added back to the source water, like a reservoir?

    • Slightly better, but the issue still is what we CAN”T yet screen for, as in prescription and other medications that have been found in our water and wastewater. Until those can be effectively screened out, I’m cautious about it.

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