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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.

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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.


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