Let's Toast to Technology as Water Recycling Goes Mainstream

From irrigation to drinking water to boiler feed to effluent pale ale, clean-water operators are proving that when it comes to reclamation, anything is possible.

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The latest trend in microbrews seems to involve beer made from recycled wastewater. I came back from a weekend with the grandkids to find a news story about the Madison (Wisconsin) Metropolitan Sewerage District and Nine Springs Effluent Pale Ale, named for the district’s treatment plant.

I first read about effluent beer when Clean Water Services in Oregon sponsored a home brew contest in summer 2015. Then later that year, the Water Environment Federation held a tasting of treatment plant microbrews at its WEFTEC conference.

There’s a fun and a serious side to all this. The fun side is the idea of hoisting a glass of amber-colored beer made from water that once passed through a wastewater plant (and additional advanced processes, of course).

The serious side is the good news that people would actually consider drinking a product made from such a source as wastewater, and that newspapers and websites wrote about the subject with (for the most part) a notable absence of potty humor.

Recycling arrives

What it means, in my opinion anyway, is that water recycling has gone mainstream. It wasn’t so many years ago that cleaning up water to use for irrigation raised some eyebrows. Now, water reuse to water golf courses, parks and even people’s lawns is routine in many places.

Next came what we call indirect potable reuse: putting tertiary-treated wastewater into reservoirs that store drinking water, or injecting it into groundwater wells from which drinking water is later drawn. The next frontier, of course, is direct potable reuse: putting highly treated water straight into the drinking water distribution system.

Direct potable reuse still carries an ick factor, understandably so, especially since the vast majority of people don’t know about all the technologies that can turn sewage into pure H2O.
The instinctive revulsion might go away faster if we could somehow banish the phrase “toilet to tap” from the lexicon.

Of course, that’s difficult, but in the meantime I think the effluent beers can help. Somehow it’s easier to imagine drinking a glass of beer made from recycled water than turning a tap at the kitchen sink and filling a glass with the water itself. Beer already carries a reputation for meticulous purity. Water from the sink is too tied up with the idea of plumbing and bathrooms.

No limits

Regardless, direct potable reuse will have its day — in fact it already has in some communities. For other communities troubled by drought, wider acceptance can’t come soon enough. While surface water supplies dry up, imported sources get more expensive, and aquifers are stressed; perfectly good water is getting sent downstream or at best sprayed on grass.
The good news is that the more water recycling goes mainstream, the closer we get to the day when direct potable reuse becomes the norm where water is precious. And recycling has gone decidedly mainstream. Reclaimed water gets used for irrigation, for industrial processes, for boiler feed and more. Some uses call for even higher purity standards than drinking water.

In a way, it’s remarkable that the filthy, smelly water entering our wastewater treatment plants could ever be turned into something clean and healthful. On another level, it isn’t remarkable at all. It’s a question of science and technology. From wastewater, today’s processes can make water suitable for almost any purpose under the sun.

Screening, settling, biological treatment, media filtration, membrane filtration, reverse osmosis — all these are part of the plant operator’s technology arsenal. They’re all thoroughly proven, and they’re being made more efficient and more effective all the time.

So while we wait for potable reuse to become so routine that it’s no longer news, it’s worth raising a glass to the companies that deliver the treatment technologies and the people who expertly operate them. Maybe I can get one of my Madison-resident siblings to get me a bottle of that Nine Springs ale.

Cheers! Or as my Norwegian ancestors would prefer: Skoal!


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