There’s no reason to turn up your nose at recycled water

The Sept. 26 “thumbs down” editorial about recycled water overlooked an important fact: all water is recycled. That’s a basic concept students learn from elementary school through college. All the water that has ever existed on Earth is still here today, constantly being recycled by nature as it moves from sky to earth and back again. The water we use every day is the same water the dinosaurs drank.

Water is water. We use it and abuse it – but we never lose it. We send it down the drain mixed with pollutants, rarely considering the fact that, eventually, that same water will come back to us to drink, use and abuse some more. Nature’s water cycle is effective at cleaning water. In urban areas, however, we use so much water that we can’t wait for nature’s cleansing processes to work. Today, we have technologies that allow us not only to reclean the water, but to choose how clean we want it to be.

How we treat (or clean) the water depends on what we plan to do with it afterward. Do we really need drinking water to irrigate lawns or flush our toilets? No. Several years ago, citizens told the LOTT Alliance to start treating wastewater as a resource and begin cleaning it to a high enough level that it could be reused for beneficial purposes. We took the message seriously. We now produce reclaimed water (aka recycled water) using a combination of high-tech treatment and nature’s recycling processes. We treat to Class A Reclaimed Water standards, the highest quality of reclaimed water currently designated by the Washington state departments of Health and Ecology.

Where lack of water is a serious problem, communities across the country use even more advanced treatment processes to purify the water. They find that the greatest barrier to using purified water for drinking is not science but public opinion, often described as the “yuck factor,” which seemed to be the sentiment behind the editorial.

LOTT has no plans to purify wastewater into a direct drinking water supply like the city of Brownwood, Texas, whose plans were the focus of the editorial. Our local communities have embraced the use of reclaimed water for many nondrinking purposes. LOTT uses reclaimed water for fountains, an interactive stream, and toilet flushing. The City of Olympia, the State of Washington, and the Port of Olympia are using it for irrigation at downtown and East Bay parks. Next year, Tumwater will save almost 700,000 gallons per day of drinking water by using reclaimed water to irrigate its golf course.

While our current treatment levels are in keeping with the needs of our local communities, questions about groundwater recharge of reclaimed water have arisen. To answer those questions, LOTT is beginning a multi-year groundwater recharge scientific study. The results of the study, along with community dialogue, will guide decision-making about options for treating the water to ensure that it meets our communities’ needs into the future.

On another note, the editorial also included a quote from a physician and 30-year resident of Brownwood that called into question the professionalism of those who design and operate wastewater treatment systems: “...who’s running the machinery ... It’s not like we’ve got NASA engineers here supervising the whole process.” NASA would be fortunate to have the level of expertise that our LOTT operators, control systems technicians, laboratory analysts, maintenance technicians, engineers and other staff put into practice every day to keep the Budd Inlet Treatment Plan and LOTT’s Reclaimed Water Plants running properly. They do an award-winning job of meeting strict water-quality standards and protecting public health and our environment. As a community, we are fortunate to have such a dedicated, expert staff protecting the public and the environment at our region’s renowned wastewater and reclaimed water utility.

Cynthia Pratt is president of the board of directors of LOTT Clean Water Alliance.