California's record drought could become so dire that state residents will have to drink their own sewage, say experts.
There's a powerful "yuck factor," as the Los Angeles Times calls it, but it can be safe, and it's a huge water resource, say many scientists. Now hundreds of billions of gallons of moderately treated sewage is simply being flushed into the Pacific Ocean.
"That water is discharged into the ocean and lost forever," Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, tells the Times. "Yet it's probably the single largest source of water supply for California over the next quarter-century."
Some level of treated sewage is often used for "non-potable" — undrinkable — uses such as irrigation for golf courses and parks. Some Texas cities are already purifying their sewage to such a degree that it's drinkable.
Many experts assure that there are no damaging health effects to drinking water from sewage, provided every care is take to filter and otherwise remove bacteria. A thorough three-step filter and cleansing process can make water cleaner than even the bottled variety.
Professor George Tchobanoglous, a water treatment expert at UC Davis in California, points out that there are currently 20 wastewater plants discharging into the Colorado River, which is a primary source of drinking water for southern California. "That's what I call de facto potable reuse," he tells the Times.
Mayors from San Jose and Santa Clara recently enjoyed a cool, clean, refreshing beaker of cleansed sewage water to make the point that the recapture liquid could be California's best hope of "finding" more water. "Delicious!" gushed San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Past efforts to capture sewage water for drinking have failed because of major public opposition. One group labeled one proposed move "from toilet to tap," which convinced the public not to support it. Also, it could take years to establish a process and regulations to protect public health as sewage is used for drinking.
But now might be close to the time. "I don't support it," said one Californian. "But we're running out of options."