water reuse tea

A cup of sewer sludge or a glass of water?

Lately, there has been a lot of debate around the use of direct potable water within our drinking water supply. Most Americans realize reusing water is a necessity to combat the growing water crisis. Yet they usually draw the line at using recycled water for our drinking water. By keeping our minds closed and focusing on the “ick” or “gross” factor, we might be missing out on one of our best shots at sustaining our water supply for future generations.

Luckily, more and more examples of the positive results of direct potable reuse (DPR) are coming to light, with Bill Gates himself leading the charge. In what became one of the top news stories earlier this year, Bill Gates drank a glass of water that had, just moments before, been sewer sludge. The Gates Foundation challenged engineers to create a process and technology to inexpensively dispose of sewage in underdeveloped African communities. What the foundation received as a result was the Janicki Omniprocessor, a machine able to take sewer sludge and turn it into ash, electricity and pure, drinkable water.

This got me thinking about how DPR can benefit our growing water shortage in the developed world.  Are we open to the idea of using water in our homes that had once been sewage, or would we turn our noses up at the idea? Bill Gates was able to use his name and far-reaching reputation to market this clean and successful. He used social media to alert his 20.2 million Twitter followers about the Omniprocessor and its usefulness.

Bill Gates blogged about his visit to the plant that houses the Omniprocessor. He shot a video of himself drinking the sludge water, which has reached 2,838,491 YouTube views. He was even able to trick Jimmy Fallon into drinking the processed sludge water during a Late Night interview. That interview alone has already received 1,841,104 YouTube views. With his stature and celebrity, Gates was able to prove his point to millions of people. But how would a municipality with a much smaller reach be able to convince their community members to trust DPR?

After researching examples of DPR in the U.S., I found areas that are experiencing water droughts and shortages are beginning to turn to the idea of using DPR. In fact, the City of Wichita Falls, TX saw DPR as answer to their vanishing water supply and developed a DPR system. The system has now been online since July of 2014. Using this system, the city now receives 5 million gallons a day, one-third of their daily water demand, including drinking water, directly from DPR. How was Wichita Falls able to illustrate just how great the need for an alternate water source was? They turned their marketing brains to their social media channels of Facebook and Twitter. The city has been bombarding their combined 11,581 Facebook and Twitter followers with water posts. Posts included constant updates on the water levels of the Wichita Falls lakes, video posts showing the shrinking of Lake Arrowhead between 2011 and 2014, a video case study on the DPR project with a call for questions and continued updates on the water quality. Using this strategy, they were able to express the growing need for water, provide their community members with proof to back up their DPR system and offer an outlet to ask questions.

There are even some requesting to use treated wastewater. The Oregon Brew Crew and Hillsboro, Oregon’s Clean Water Services are asking the state to allow them to use recycled sewer water to brew small batches of beer for events. This idea stemmed from a contest that Clean Water Services sponsored this past September. Clean Water Services asked brewers attending the Oregon Brewers Festival to create beers partially out of purified sewer water. The goal of this competition was to bring awareness of the possibility of using DPR and remove some of the gross factor from the community minds. It was an outstanding success! This new project would give brewers higher purity water than the tap water, which they would otherwise use. It would also continue the conversation about using DPR in Oregon before the state faces a drought situation like California.

Given the increase in DPR projects, it seems the conversation on DPR is spreading. Would you drink water that came from a DPR system, or would the “ick” get in your way?

Leave a Reply