By Johnny Lemoine
Greg Fitzsimmons, who’s up there as being one of my favorite comedians, has a hilarious bit about water. It goes a little something like this…
“In America we have so much water it’s a joke. We have fun – we play! We have water parks. We squirt it down tubes and roll around in it… and shoot it. We have fountains. What IS a fountain?! It’s just us blasting water in the air, like (insert profanities here) look at all this water!!! We don’t even need it! And what do we do at the fountain? We take money we don’t need, and throoowww it in!”
He then goes on to play out a scenario where a child from another country, a much more deprived country, would come over to the United States and see what we’re doing with our water, like “what is this beautiful porcelain bowl filled with “cooool, cleaaan water?” He continues to go on and on about how we flush our waste with incredibly clean, potable water, and how ridiculous of a concept this happens to be.
When it’s put into joke-form, it becomes very, very clear that we have a huge issue here in the United States and in most other countries in the world. Although as funny as his bit is, it’s the absolute, disgusting truth. In the United States, on average we currently flush 4,757 gallons of drinking water down the toilet, per person, in one year. With our population growing at a rapid pace, our aging and costly water infrastructures and the price of water increasing 5% yearly, extreme droughts, all-too-frequent natural disasters, we really need to rethink how we use, and reuse, our water.
Here’s Greg’s scene if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ9s8feSLOY.
Just a seven minute bicycle ride from our office, I recently found myself in an old renovated warehouse with about sixty others at a day-long summit listening to some passionate folks from the Bay Area discuss something I take for granted every day, water. The Water Reuse Summit was hosted by the William J. Worthen Foundation, and was quite fascinating in terms of policy.
It began with Senator Scott Weiner, who gave a small, yet somewhat inspiring speech about how our overall sense of urgency has just simply not been there when it comes down to reusing our water in the progressive state of California. He continued to discuss what policies he had been working on to put into place to help make California more progressive in terms of water reuse, and what we had to do to survive our continued droughts (and recessions, since water is becoming quite pricey). One of these policies is Senate Bill 966, or “SB 966.”
Without state policies, there is no guidance on what the appropriate water quality standards are for reusing water in buildings. Jurisdictions have been very reluctant to permit these systems in the past when proposed at the local level because they have no idea what is appropriate or safe. SB 966 directs the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to develop regulations creating risk-based water quality standards for the on-site treatment and reuse of non-potable water in commercial, mixed-use, and multi-family residential buildings. This will assist local governments in developing oversight and management programs for onsite non-potable water systems, and to make it easier for all of us to start reusing water on-site and to get through the permitting process successfully, with a bit more confidence.
This is great news, yet this is also somewhat upsetting that in the year 2018 we’re finally making some strides in California to allow this process to happen safely, especially since the technology and precedents have been in place here since the late ‘20s. Los Angeles County’s sanitation districts started providing treated wastewater for landscape irrigation in parks and golf courses in 1929. It’s pretty ironic that I learned about this Senate Bill being put into place, and how revolutionary everyone made it out to be, at a conference in the city of San Francisco not far from Golden Gate Park, which is the same city that is home to the first reclaimed water facility in California. Actually, located in Golden Gate Park in 1932, the city reused its wastewater on-site for irrigation throughout the park’s landscape, but it shut down over forty years later as a result of some new regulatory changes. Now there is a new wastewater treatment plant, scheduled to be completed by 2021, to be in Golden Gate Park, again, that will reuse its water throughout most of its land. Hopefully this time around it lasts, and future regulation changes can work with older technologies, and we can stop playing this expensive game. The new wastewater recycling system costs $214 million.
I’m not sure why the United States is so behind in regards to recycling its precious water, and I’ll never be able to answer that question, or why people in Flint, Michigan don’t have treated potable water in 2018. What I do know is that we need to up our game and start thinking about this in a much more dire and creative way. This water reuse summit certainly hammered that notion home. I think that regulations like SB 966 will keep being put into place across the country if we take advantage of what they have to offer more often. We need to be more diligent about reusing our water locally, especially for architects with implementing water reuse into our projects on-site. Look, Israel has already recycled 90% of its wastewater successfully since the ‘90s, and Namibia, the most arid country in southern Africa, has been safely drinking their recycled water since 1969. Meanwhile, Australia mines for sewage to treat their wastewater.
Every drop of water we drink, use for showering, what we use to flush toilets with that “cooool, cleaaan water,” and what we use to grow our food, every drop, has been recycled many, many times before. Most of the water we’re currently drinking is already recycled from upstream, and is coming from other people’s waste to begin with. Actually, our water is said to be older than our sun, which is 4.6 billion years old. It’s not new. In fact, it’s ancient. It’s already reused. Therefore, we really need to get over the “yuck” factor of reusing water and to do a greater, more efficient job of educating our clients, and really everybody around us (that includes ourselves), that this is the right thing to start doing at a very early phase in the project and that it’s not all that disgusting. This is especially true for non-potable uses like irrigation and cooling, and most definitely true for flushing down our poop in our porcelain thrones. I’m not sure if it’s financially feasible for everybody to start doing this, but I do know that we at least need to start having this conversation a lot more often, educating ourselves and others, and to start thinking about this from the very beginning of our projects. No more “yuck” factor. More education. We shouldn’t be taking water for granted any longer.
Please check out this very informational water reuse practice guide from the William J Worthen Foundation:
And here’s a guidebook from SFPUC’s website that’s pretty informative: