Your Drain Is Arizona’s Newest Water Source

The state is on the cutting edge of direct potable reuse thanks to the efforts put forth by the DEQ in writing regulations that give cities with water shortages more options

Your Drain Is Arizona’s Newest Water Source

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality recently put rules into place promoting the use of direct potable reuse treatment systems, marking the beginning of an effort to provide more options for communities facing problems with droughts and water shortages. This photo from TPO magazine in 2016 shows one of the very few such systems operating in the nation: the Cypress Water Treatment Plant in Wichita Falls, Texas. (Photo By Olivia Ogren-Hrejsa)

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Until the beginning of this year, direct potable reuse in Arizona was unequivocally banned.

“There was a flat-out prohibition against using direct potable reuse. At the time, the standards weren’t there, and the technology wasn’t there. Thanks to pilot projects in other states, it is now technologically feasible and safe,” says Dave Dunaway, value stream manager of groundwater protection and reuse for Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality.

It’s the first step in an effort by Arizona DEQ to create a new set of rules and guidelines promoting DPR systems.

“We’ve enabled it on the menu of your options. So individual public water systems, or wastewater treatment facilities, now have this option,” Dunaway says. “There may be cases where it is the best option, may be cases where it’s a good option, there may be a case where it is the only option.”

As a drought-prone state, they have faced increasing risk of water shortages in recent years.

“In Arizona, we’re committed to the highest and best use of water. We are in a desert environment through at least half of the state. In order to support continued economic growth, we’ve got to figure out creative ways to make sure we can continue to grow,” Dunaway says. “The removal of the prohibition against direct potable reuse was the big singular step that we’ve made so far.”

Dunaway cited a scenario from when he first began his current role: A small town ran out of water completely, due to a well failure. As droughts become more common across the nation, so do scenarios like this.

“Hundreds to thousands of residents were impacted; it was an actual emergency. We now have one extra way of resolving that emergency,” Dunaway says.

“On a case-by-case basis, it’s up for the actual regulated community to decide when this is appropriate. Beyond that, I anticipate more cities, more small towns, more small communities looking into this.”

Overcoming public perception

“I would be lying if I said the overall concept doesn’t scare people,” Dunaway says. “If you’re able to have a logical discussion and interact, usually that resistance goes away.”

The water quality division of Arizona DEQ, which Dunaway’s position falls under, has already tested that idea with the Pima County Innovation Challenge. The program offered a $250,000 prize to collaborations developing innovative or inventive solutions in water sustainability.

Pima County Southwest Water Campus won the challenge with an effluent-to-potable reuse technology, as well as a mobile public engagement campaign and a craft beer competition using recycled water.

“After we permitted the Innovation Challenge, one of the pictures I loved having was of my son drinking some of the bottled water from that,” Dunaway says. “Not only do I believe it’s safe, I believe it’s safe enough to let my children drink. So it’s overcoming a little bit of mindset, but using logic that’s a situation we’ve been able to resolve. “The umbrella heading of recycled water covers everything from wastewater treatment plant effluent — that’s been treated to a certain standard — being used to water a golf course, for industrial processes, all the way up to potentially using it for human consumption, with appropriate treatment, with appropriate safeguards in place.”

Providing a roadmap

The DEQ guidelines won’t necessarily dictate specific technologies or systems, but will act as a comprehensive set of principles to assist municipalities in considering DPR.

“We have this broad, sweeping suite of rule changes planned,” Dunaway says. “Through different phases we’re going to set more clear standards and guidelines for the permitting process, for the conveyance of reclaimed water, through the standards associated with it.”

The baseline for Arizona’s guidance is the existing Safe Drinking Water Act. From those standards, they will increase monitoring and safety policies, and any proposals will require a detailed application process.

“Ultimately, there’s many ways to get to safe, drinkable water,” Dunaway says. “There will always be monitoring and sampling associated with this. So we have the framework that enables this now, we just want to make it more clear and easier to follow.”

In addition to expanding on the Safe Drinking Water Act, Arizona DEQ is partnering with the National Water Reuse Institute to solidify the guidelines.

Though specific requirements for the type of system will not be part of the rule changes, whatever combination of filtration and disinfection are in place will have to meet the highest standards of treatment, including system backups.

“Redundancy in any facility, be it a drinking water system, be it a wastewater treatment system, and especially in the wastewater treatment systems, it’s kind of baked into our rules. So absolutely, there needs to be appropriate safeguards for when something happens,” Dunaway says.

With new concerns emerging all the time, be it pharmaceuticals and care products or microplastics in the water supply, it’s an ongoing battle, but Arizona DEQ is confident in the future of this effort.

“What we’re envisioning right now is the combination of different technologies, to help frame what works in what circumstances, and that’s an evolving field, still, but it can be done safely now,” Dunaway says. “We view recycled water as a resource. With this being an advancing technology, we have the ability to respond appropriately, and as long as human health and the environment are protected, we want to be responsive to what current trends are.”

Leading the charge

Only two other states have systems in place for DPR: Texas and California. But neither have taken the approach that Arizona has planned.

Texas began allowing DPR on an as-needed basis to combat drought-induced water shortages, but has not expanded that to broader applications in everyday systems.

California, on the other hand, has allowed DPR across the board, albeit with a set of ultra-restrictive policies that make it difficult for municipalities to approach.

Arizona seeks the middle ground.

“A lot of this is economy of scale, and does this work for us? I don’t believe the guidance will ever flesh out whether it’s going to be economically viable for a specific system,” Dunaway says. “What we’re trying to do is lower the amount of investigation needed to come up with that conclusion.”

Despite not allowing DPR until recently, Arizona has a long history of using reclaimed water in varying capacities. According to Chuck Graf, recently retired principal hydrogeologist with Arizona DEQ, in a Q&A with News Deeply, the first reclaimed water systems in the state date back to 1926.

Rules weren’t put into place until 1972, and again, according to Graf, Arizona was one of the first in the nation to establish those guidelines. “It’s really exciting to be on the cutting edge of this,” Dunaway says. “I’m very pleased Arizona is a national leader in this case.”


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