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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

From Toilet To Tap: City Officials Say Get Used To Drinking Recycled Water

The treated water is disinfected under ultra-violet light bulbs in the final phase of reclamation. (Laurel Morales)

The treated water is disinfected under ultra-violet light bulbs in the final phase of reclamation. (Laurel Morales)

Most people are squeamish about the notion of consuming recycled waste water. But experts say people who live in the Southwest might have to get used to the idea, given the current drought and growing population.

It’s something residents of Las Vegas have been doing for some time now. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Laurel Morales of KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk reports on how Las Vegas waste water gets clean enough to drink.

Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” then joins host Jeremy Hobson to discuss how Las Vegas is handling its water resources.





Well, now to California, where recent storms have made a dent in the drought, but it's just the beginning of what California and the Southwest need. A dwindling supply of fresh water has officials warning people that they should get used to the idea of consuming water that has already been used. From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Laurel Morales at KJZZ's Fronteras Desk explains how the desert city of Las Vegas gets its wastewater clean enough to drink.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: In Las Vegas, all the water that cleans the dishes, hits the shower drain or is flushed down the toilet is recycled at this reclamation plant in a residential area near downtown Las Vegas. The waste flows through 2,000 miles of pipes and arrives in a torrent here. Jeff Mills is the assistant manager.

JEFF MILLS: What you're standing on right now, this is where everything comes in.

MORALES: Mills holds up a plastic container of what's called influent, the waste piped into the plant.

MILLS: It's not probably as dark as what you might think, because 99.9 percent of that's carrier water, basically bringing it down in the collection system. So...

MORALES: May I take your picture with it?

MILLS: Sure. Definitely not a glamour shot, right?


MORALES: Mills took me through, step by step, how everything is filtered out: egg shells, coffee grounds and sludge. He explained how the good bacteria eat up chemicals harmful to the environment, and finally how ultraviolet light bulbs disinfect the water.

Water pollution control laws in the 1940s and '50s provided federal money to build wastewater treatment plants like this one. Much of that water is now reused on golf courses, in air conditioners and car washes. In some cases, it flows back into the environment, like the Las Vegas Wash, where Mills is showing me how clean the water is.

MILLS: If you kind of come in, and the fish don't see you, you should see a good half-dozen good-size carp. Yeah, there's one right there.

MORALES: Wow. They're big.

MILLS: Yeah. They are big.

MORALES: From the Las Vegas Wash, the water flows 25 miles downstream to Lake Mead, the massive reservoir that supplies water to Southern California and Arizona and Las Vegas. But the recharge won't do much to bolster Lake Mead, which is low because of the drought, and its water is already over-allocated. That's why the Southern Nevada Water Authority is building a new pipe to pump water to Las Vegas.

Engineering project manager Erika Moonin takes me to a platform where I can look down a 600-foot-deep shaft that's 30 feet in diameter. Whoa. Warm, humid air mists up my camera lens and my glasses. Moonin says they're building this pipeline to take cleaner water from the bottom of the lake.

ERIKA MOONIN: That treated wastewater gets trapped at the surface. So if we're deep enough, it doesn't really influence - we don't see the influence of that treated wastewater coming in and into our intakes.

MORALES: Some water experts worry about what the reclamation process doesn't remove: traces of pharmaceutical drugs, for instance. Robert Glennon is the author of "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It."

ROBERT GLENNON: Now they're in exceedingly small doses measured in the parts per trillion, but they're still powerful chemicals. And we don't know what the maximum safe exposure level is for any one of these chemicals, never mind that it's really a veritable cocktail mix of chemicals.

MORALES: So far, research shows no harmful health impacts in places like Namibia, where people are already drinking recycled water without an environmental buffer like a lake. But more studies need to be done. In the meantime, Glennon says that water can be used on parks or to wash cars.

GLENNON: When most of us think about the water that we have, we think of it as though it were like air, infinite and inexhaustible, when, for all practical purposes, it's very finite and very exhaustible.

MORALES: That's why the Southwest is relying more and more on recycled water to stretch the supply. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Laurel Morales, in Las Vegas.

HOBSON: And Laurel's story came to us from Fronteras Desk. That's a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics. This is HERE AND NOW.


HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's continue our conversation now about water use with Charles Fishman. He's the author of "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." He's with us from Washington. Charles Fishman, welcome.

CHARLES FISHMAN: Happy to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, we just heard there about Las Vegas, which is the driest city in the United States, but as you write, it's also more advanced in water consciousness and water management than almost anywhere else in the country.

FISHMAN: Las Vegas is one of the most water-smart cities in the country and even one of the most water smart in the world. They have no choice. The amount of water they could take from the huge reservoir, Lake Mead, was set back in the 1930s, and although the city is 10 times, even 100 times the size it was then, they don't get any new water.

So they have to figure out how to use the very limited water they've got smartly, or they'd have to stop growing.

HOBSON: Well, beyond the water recycling that we just heard about, what are they doing that's so smart?

FISHMAN: They've put in whole series of things that has really changed the water culture of the Las Vegas metro area. Let's just put the statistic on the table first. Twenty years ago, Las Vegas used 329 gallons of water a day a person. That's more than the typical household in the U.S. uses a day. They are down 20 years later to 219 gallons a day a person. They've saved 110 gallons per person per day.

What they really did was they understood that there isn't one thing you can do. And so they've done 20 things. They will pay you to remove your front lawn, or your back lawn, in Las Vegas and replace it with desert landscape. They will pay you if you're a commercial office park owner, any kind of business or hotel or golf course, they will also pay you $40,000 per acre to remove your turf grass and replace it with desert landscaping.

It is now illegal in Las Vegas to have a home with a front lawn if your home was built in 2000 or later. So they have outlawed front lawns. It's the desert. They get four inches of rain a year. Just by contrast, L.A. got four inches of rain over the weekend.

HOBSON: Well, and Charles Fishman, we should say, though, that when you walk down the Strip in Las Vegas, it doesn't look like a place that's conserving water. You see the fountains at the Bellagio and the Mirage and all these casinos and dolphins jumping about in various places even though they're not obviously native to Las Vegas.

But they have worked with the casinos, also, that have made those places much smarter with their water use.

FISHMAN: Well, the Strip seems to be this crazy carnival of water. As you said, the second-largest fountain in the world, until two years ago it was the largest fountain in the world, in front of the Bellagio is an eight-acre lake. There's a Cirque du Soleil show that takes place in a tank of water. As you said, there's a shark aquarium at Mandalay Bay. There's a huge dolphin habitat inside one of the casinos.

But all of that water is reused water, first of all, very carefully monitored and regulated. And there are incredibly conservation rules. If you want to put in a fountain, you have to remove enough turf to account for 10 times the amount of water that the fountain would use.

If you're ever in Las Vegas, and you look carefully on the Strip, every single plant has its own little sprinkler head. There's no open-air sprinkling. There's no water running in the gutters. In fact it's illegal to let water hit a paved surface in Las Vegas whether you're a business or a homeowner. It's illegal to empty your pool or your hot tub into a storm drain. You have to empty it into the sewer system of your home because they want to recapture all that water, and water that goes on the pavement just, you know, evaporates.

HOBSON: Well, so is it practical for us in the rest of the country to take those kinds of steps, or do we have enough water that it's not necessary at this point?

FISHMAN: I like to refer to Las Vegas as the most water-smart city in the country, and I think there's a lot to be learned. The most important thing we can learn was in the report that you all just heard, which is Las Vegas collects all the water it uses and cleans it and returns it to the source. They reuse it.

And many, many communities could get something out that. The report alludes to the micro-pollutant issue, but actually lots of parts of Las Vegas now run their water through an ozone system, as well, and ozone actually deactivates the micro-pollutants. So even that problem can be dealt with.

And so Las Vegas recycles 94 percent of the water that goes down a drain anywhere in the community. That to me is the first thing we can learn. The other thing is if Las Vegas can learn to use less water, the rest of us can, too. They have put in place this whole set of rules, some of which are positive. No, in Ohio you're not going to ban front lawns. There's no reason.

HOBSON: Right.

FISHMAN: But you can ask the question how do people water their lawns. Las Vegas has permanent rules about the days you can water your lawns. Forty percent of the water Americans use at home goes onto the lawn, and the estimate is that half of that water is completely unnecessary, it doesn't make your lawn any greener.

HOBSON: But are Americans ready to use recycled water? Your book came out a few years ago, but has the conversation changed? Have attitudes changed about reusing water that might have gone through your toilet at some point?

FISHMAN: I think actually the conversation and attitude has changed tremendously. There's a lot of this kind of work going on in California and in the West right now precisely because of the drought. And I think there's almost no good news in a devastating drought like, you know, year three in California, year four in Texas right now. But if a place like Texas can sort of take a step back and say you know what, all these communities do have one supply of water, it's the water they've already got, let's clean it right here and reuse it, if Texas can get their heads around that, the rest of us can.

As you note, Jeremy, it's all reused water. Even Evian was Tyrannosaurus rex pee at one point.


FISHMAN: There's only one quantity of water in the world, and we're using it over and over and over again. So New Orleans and Memphis are taking water out of the Mississippi River that started up at Minneapolis. So that's a much tighter cycle. But there's no reason not to clean it. And as water becomes more scarce and as people look around and think uh-oh, what would we do if we had a four-year drought, reuse is an insurance policy.

You don't have to use it all the time. It doesn't have to be 100 percent of your water. But it's a great cushion for when the dry times come.

HOBSON: If Las Vegas is the water smartest city in the country, what's the dumbest water city in the country?


FISHMAN: You know, to be honest I don't know. Florida, my favorite example of sort of dunderheaded, if not dumb, dunderheaded water problems, Florida gets four feet of water a year, 48 inches fall on average on every part of Florida. They have chronic water shortages. And half the water used in Florida is used for outdoor lawn watering. So they need to connect the dots a lot. They need to collect the water that falls and use it, and they need to realize that their grass will be green even if they don't turn on the sprinkler systems.

So I would say as a state, Florida is probably the place you could make the most progress most quickly with the least pain.

HOBSON: Charles Fishman, author of "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." Charles, thanks so much for talking with us.

FISHMAN: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And whether you live in Las Vegas or Florida and you'd like to respond to what Charles Fishman just said or just let us know how you feel about using recycled water, you can go to hereandnow.org. You can also send us a tweet @hereandnow. I'm @jeremyhobson. Robin is @hereandnowrobin. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • tncanoeguy

    All water has been used.

    • N_Jessen

      True that. Although some people might not be as inclined to trust human purification systems over nature’s equivalent of distillation.

  • Pacific

    Give/take turn of the last century, a chemist @ (forget which mega-chemical co) came up with a product that did nothing — except turn grass green. The company immediately planted lawns — and a big PR campaign. Needless to say, people have been hooked on lawns since that time. My idea of a “lawn” is, when I see a blade of grass, I pull it out! Lawns, as such, should be outlawed!

  • http://www.floridanativenurseries.org FANNisonline

    YES there is a very important reason to get rid of grass lawns — aside from the water debacle — we are paving away habitat and losing our natural heritage. Highly recommend everyone tap into Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home” message — adding native plants to your landscape BRINGS LIFE TO YOUR LANDSCAPE.


  • Sean Mcmonagle

    I feel that we may have forgotten the potential of rain. Its the same product that gives rainbows there colors, wild berries there sweetness, and the entire natrual world its infinite details…yet we treat it, add chemicals to it…ruin it……DRINK MORE RAIN

    • N_Jessen

      Except where there’s a shortage of rain? In the future, many parts of the southwest could go a very long time without it, other than the occasional deluge. Improved rain collection systems (at least for gardens) could be a plus though.

      • Sean Mcmonagle

        The savings from just putting out a bucket in the open rain and distilling it until you’re in need of it are huge

        • loyal listener

          It takes a lot of energy to distill water. And it is actually not good to drink water with no minerals in it. At the same time, other pollutants may still be present in your distilled water.

          • N_Jessen

            I’m not sure distilled water, at least in moderation, is a problem if you have a diet that isn’t deficient in minerals, and it tends to lack pollutants unless they’re introduced after the fact. But distillation does take plenty of energy, so unless one has a good solar outfit it might make more sense to just re-filter the tap water, if for some reason it isn’t trusted.

  • Janet Zampieri

    They think Las Vegas has made wonderful strides by going from 300+ gallons per person per day to 200+ gallons – that is a ridiculous amount of water to be using! Here in Tucson the average per capita per day use is around 100 gallons, and my husband and I use around 50 gallons each per day with simple conservation measures. They are obviously not doing much to conserve water in Las Vegas!

  • Steev

    OK, so Vegas has some recycling, and I support that.
    Yet that fountain/pool stuff evaporates a lot of water- it is there to show off, not hydrate & should under a pavilion. I doubt if all the ice watering players’ drinks is recycled either.
    If all that sprawl funds water re-use, why does the Southern Nevada Water Authority want to import water out from under far-away rural Eastern NV?
    Shades of the Owens Valley!

    • cnfish

      Steev, the fountains and water features on the Las Vegas Strip look a lot “lusher” than they are. A single golf course in Las Vegas (there are 42) uses more water in 14 days than that big Bellagio fountain uses in a year. Both the fountains and the golf courses, these days, use “re-use” water. The water features are splashy, but they aren’t a big problem in terms of water use.

      As for the sprawl and the effort to get water from rural Nevada…well, Lake Mead is half empty. It’s at 50% capacity. That’s where Vegas’ water comes from. So water managers want to build a pipe to other water sources, just in case. It’s been at 50% most of this decade. But for the 50 years before that, it was always between 70% and 100% full. That’s why they are worried.

      Where that’s good policy or not — it’s what the water managers in Vegas see as their job. Otherwise, a city of 2 million has no water.

      • Steev

        Lake Mead water comes from the Colorado River…and Mexico lost that water, eviscerating their desert delta.
        Instead of gee-whiz, technical fixes, I’d suggest that long-term aspects should be considered-like, a city of 2 million? For whom/what? and especially, where??
        ‘Doing your job’ belies expropriating long-held hydrologic rights hundreds of miles away (a coal-fired power plant was also proposed). Do we need more Four Corners/Salton Sea(s) in the West? I must protest!
        How ironic, because my grandad worked with The Six Companies at Boulder/Hoover Dam; the “Mead” moniker recalls one of the partners’ wives, Sue Mead Kaiser.
        Vegans should do better, and with less.

  • Sean Mcmonagle

    that is the improvement..just bypass the entire system and go.right to the source

  • Pursuithappiness

    Propaganda by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Because of their desire to do grandiose projects and spend money, they never tell the other side of the story: THAT THEY CAN DRAW AN UNLIMITED AMOUNT OF WATER FROM LAKE MEAD FOR INDOOR USE. Whatever they put back into the Lake, they can withdraw and sell above and beyond the 300,000 acre feet which Nevada is allocated under the terms of the Colorado River Compact.

    Because of their incompetence and greed (for high salaries, pensions, etc.) they withdraw the water downstream from where the effluent (including pharmaceuticals) enter the Lake (at Vegas Wash). It is only with the construction of the third straw which was discussed in this article that Las Vegas will get water upstream from Vegas Wash. Las Vegas is hardly the driest city in the US: it has an unlimited pristine source of water only 20 miles away! Ed Uehling

  • Pursuithappiness

    The purpose of the Southern Nevada Water Authority propaganda and hysteria about “THE DROUGHT” is to scare the public into supporting the 300 mile pipeline into the rural area of Nevada. That will bring raw water to Southern Nevada at a minimum cost of $8000 per acre foot, when SNWA can draw an unlimited amount of water from Lake Mead for FREE as long as it is recycled back into the Lake. The real purpose of the pipeline is not for water for Las Vegas, but for providing water to Coyote Springs, an insane exurban project 50 miles north of Las Vegas in which the family and cronies of Senator Harry Reid are involved. They want to provide housing for 300,000 retirees and commuters to Las Vegas at an enormous ecological cost to the people and State of Nevada, but equally enormous profit to these insiders. Ed Uehling

  • Bozo

    Survivor man drinks his own piss and likes it,stay thirsty my friends!

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