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Book explores efforts to recycle sewage as a tool to help with water shortages

Author Peter Annin and the cover of his latest book, Purified.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Author Peter Annin and the cover of his latest book, Purified.

In Purified: How Recycled Sewage Is Transforming Our Water, environmental and water journalist Peter Annin delves into the complex, sometimes controversial, water recycling movement and how it’s playing out in water-strapped states. Annin is also the author of The Great Lakes Water Wars. He currently serves as director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Peter Annin recently sat down with The Environment Report's Lester Graham to talk about his latest book.

Lester Graham: Most of us are aware that the American Southwest is facing a lot of water shortages. Your book, Purified, makes the point that these water shortages are not confined to just the arid parts of the country. I think we just saw that in Joliet, Illinois. It faced water shortages and had to tap into Chicago's water system, which gets its water from Lake Michigan, of course. So just how widespread is the problem of water shortages?
Peter Annin: It's all over and and in so many ways. It's throughout the Sunbelt. As you say, in the water rich Great Lakes region, Joliet, Illinois, has probably the worst groundwater situation of the entire Great Lakes region. It just was so surprising to me, traveling around the country for five years, visiting different areas.

Florida needs to find another billion gallons of water per year by 2040. They have a thousand people moving to the state every day. Virginia, we talked about in the book how southeast Virginia around the Norfolk Naval Station has serious groundwater issues. Yeah, it's it's just remarkable. The Ogallala aquifer in the plains and the central part of the country, water levels there are down 100 feet and only recharging about two inches per year. I mean, it just everywhere you look. The Mississippi River, the largest river in the United States, is now has this major drought and the water level is so low that saltwater is coming up the river. It's really remarkable.

Sure, there are a few corners that are wet. The Great Lakes region, of course, has a lot of water and gets a lot of water. But even then, from 1998 to 2013, the Great Lakes region went through the longest drought period in history. So water is just one of those things where we tend to take it for granted, but it keeps reminding us that it's not always there.
LG: Your book looks at the idea of water recycling, which kind of struck me as funny because isn't all water recycled by nature all the time? But you're looking at cities that are recycling wastewater. Explain what that means to recycle wastewater.

 PA: So when you flush the toilet, that water goes to your municipal water treatment system and they treat that water to Clean Water Act standards. And then, normally that water is discharged into a surface water system, a river or a lake or the ocean. But what we see with water recycling programs is that they capture that Clean Water Act-standard water, and then they grab it and they treat it extensively to the point where it's like distilled water. And then they put that into their drinking water system.

We have Los Angeles has pledged to recycle 100% of its water by 2035. San Diego's at 50% pledge by 2035. Orange County, California already is recycling 100% of its sewage and turning it into drinking water. They're tapped out. They have no more sewage to recycle.

So California is really a hot spot, but we see it throughout much of Texas. It's really catching on in Florida. And as I mentioned, wet states like Virginia. You know, you have the swampy lowlands of southeast Virginia and they have the most the most aggressive water recycling program on the East Coast right now.

 LG: It's happening, but it's not always being embraced. Some critics have called it "toilet to tap," which is descriptive, but you suggest it's misleading.

 PA: Yeah, I mean, it is the most reviled term in the water reuse movement. It has been successfully used to kill programs in the past, most notably San Diego in the late 1990s and in the L.A. metro area, also in the 1990s.

But what we're seeing is that so many communities -throughout the Sun Belt in particular- are so desperate for water that people aren't opposed to it anymore in many areas. Not all. There's still controversy in many areas, but like I said, Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles announces in 2019 that he wants to recycle 100% of the all the sewage in the second largest city in the country and there has been no opposition. And, you know, the region is in the midst of a 1,200 year record drought. The atmospheric rivers in the last 12 months have helped California a lot. But just a little bit to the east of the Colorado River watershed, it's still a very, very serious situation.

(According to NOAA, “Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics. While atmospheric rivers can vary greatly in size and strength, the average atmospheric river carries an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Exceptionally strong atmospheric rivers can transport up to 15 times that amount. When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapor in the form of rain or snow.”)
LG: Let's look at that for a second, because I think when most of us think of recycling sewage, we think about the pathogens and perhaps chemicals that might be in that water. But when a wastewater treatment plant treats sewage, it's released and the next city downstream uses that water for their drinking water plant. Is this problem with recycling sewage just a matter of people being unaware of what's already happening?

 PA: Yeah, that's a really great question. So, if you live on a river or all of us who have lived on rivers, we're already drinking what's called de facto recycled water.
LG: Or on one of the Great Lakes. 

PA: Yeah. Sure. Because that's there's a lot of water treatment, water that ends up in the Great Lakes system. That's absolutely right. But it's especially notable, I think, for river people. And that's because, as you say, Lester, the water is from a wastewater treatment plant is treated the Clean Water Act standards, and then it's discharged into that river or lake and then it goes downstream to the next municipality, which then brings in that treated, wastewater effluent that's now mixed with that river for how many ever miles and then that's brought in. And then that community treats the water, discharges it to the river. And so by the time you get down to New Orleans, there are jokes about how many kidneys that water has passed through, not to mention the animals that have consumed that water and then, you know, excreted it. And so that's called de facto water recycling.

And reminders about that have been very effective in getting people to say, oh yeah, I guess we have been doing this for a while. And there's a great quote from a physician in the book saying, you know, "All water is recycled. We're drinking dinosaur pee right now." It's all part of the closed system that we have on earth with fresh water. We consume it, we discharge it. It gets into the system, it evaporates, it comes down as rain, and then we consume it again.

LG: Most of the cities that are contemplating recycling water are those that depend on water that was diverted from rivers or are stored in dams, piped long distances. Now, rainfall and snowpack is not keeping up with the demand. Is recycling water just for cities that are desperate for water.

 PA: That's the front line right now. That's the front line. And I think what we're seeing is because there is literally a boom in water recycling in many parts of the country, that it's forcing wastewater managers and water managers in general to start looking at treated effluent, treated sewage differently. And is there more that we could do in a sustainable way with that wastewater? And it's a conversation that's just taking off in other parts of the country, the wetter parts of the country. But again, one of the most fascinating things in the book was these wet areas, Florida, Virginia, that are looking at water recycling, and that's potable water recycling.

We have is non-potable water recycling, so-called purple pipe. That water, because it's not drinkable, it's transmitted through a separate plumbing system for irrigation of lawns and farms and also used industrially. That's another very robust way to use recycled water. And that's been happening for decades, also uncontroversial in most areas. But it's this new frontier now that's really taking off is actually going a step further, treating that water to drinking water standards and then using it as a key water source for communities throughout much of the Sunbelt.

LG: I want to drill down on this idea of the diverted water, in the West especially, that it's running short, has been for what, a couple of decades now? So, that's happening there. But you've written extensively on the Great Lakes region. Here we have restrictions on withdrawals of water from the watershed, the basin. But just as I mentioned with Joliet getting water, there seem to be exceptions here and there, especially in Wisconsin. Do you expect we'll be pressured for more exceptions? And if so, will that make that idea of recycling water for those fringe towns a little more important?

 PA: Yeah, So that's a great question. So we're talking about the Great Lakes Compact here, which I refer to as a legal water fence designed to keep Great Lakes water inside the Great Lakes watershed. And so it's a ban on diversions, long range, large scale diversions with limited exceptions. And those limited exceptions, if you're a community that's on or near the edge of that watershed, you can ask for permission to divert water from the Great Lakes watershed. But it needs either the approval of the local governor or even in some cases, all eight Great Lakes governors after also consulting the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. So that's what we've been seeing since the Great Lakes Compact was implemented in 2008.

And we will continue to see, especially in southeastern Wisconsin, increases in requests for these exceptional diversions. But some people even argue whether you could even call the diversion because the compact requires that the water be returned to the Great Lakes after its use so that there's, quote, "no net loss" except for a little consumptive use. And we are going to see more of these kinds of diversion requests. And that's a normal part of the process that the Great Lakes governors and premiers anticipated would happen under the Great Lakes Compact. And sooner or later, we are going to see a situation where, you know, applicants may be denied or they may be told even before they apply that they're not going to qualify. So, we may sort of have a preemptive denial, if you will. Anybody can apply, but they may not want to go through it. It's a very arduous process that may not not pan out and would be better to not even start it. But, yeah, we're going to see this increase continue to be a situation under the Great Lakes Compact. And there will always be people who oppose any kinds of diversions. But the compact was designed for, again, people in a water rich region who are short on a water supply and don't have any other options. They they can apply for water under the Great Lakes Compact and will.

 LG: I want to get back to the idea of whether recycling water be an option for them. Would that be something they should consider or is it too inefficient, too costly?

 PA: This is what's really been fascinating. Waukesha is a suburb of Milwaukee and the most famous and controversial water diversion under the Great Lakes Compact. When Waukesha applied for a Great Lakes water diversion. No one was talking about, hey, should you be recycling water instead of diverting water from the Great Lakes? Now, when I talk to water experts, they're like, we should have asked Waukesha to look at water recycling as an alternative as well. And so, interestingly, I think we're going to see with these increasing or continued water diversion applications under the Great Lakes Compact, that water recycling will be invoked, if not by the regulators, by the advocacy community as an alternative to taking water from the Great Lakes and sending it outside the watershed, even though just a little ways outside the watershed and even though it will be returned. Yeah, it's a really fascinating question.

 LG: We're doing this in some parts of the U.S. Are there other countries that have embraced this and had success?

 PA: Yes. Namibia, a desert country in southern Africa, was a leader and has been doing potable water recycling for decades. Singapore is also a leader. Israel is the global leader in using non-potable purple pipe water for agriculture. But when it comes to drinkable recycled water, the United States is the global leader. California is the leading state in the United States using recycled water. And Orange County is the leading municipality or jurisdiction in California, that's the it's the leader. So Orange County is literally the the global leader when it comes to potable water recycling.

LG: Let me ask you the bottom line it. How ready are we for this idea of recycling sewage into drinking water.

 PA: It really depends on where you live. And when you are reading in the paper and online and hearing it on the radio and the television, "We're running out of water. We're running out of water," this time it's really getting serious -and it is really getting serious as I explored in the book. Some places they were down to months of water supply for thousands and thousands of people. And so those areas where you're just getting hammered in the headlines every day or very regularly about especially the interface between climate change and water scarcity, those are the places that are ready and and have accepted it readily.

 You know, I've been doing book tours in wet parts of the country and dry parts of the country. And what's really fascinating is in wet parts of the country they're asking the same questions, they have the same concerns that the dry parts of the country had decades ago. And when you tell them that these are great questions, but they've actually already been asked and answered in place like places like California that have very strict regulations. It's sort of like sort of a gee whiz moment for people living in what are parts of the country who aren't familiar with the concept at all.

LG: When we're talking about the arid West and their hunt for water, their search for water, some states have been asking whether they can get some of this flooding, Mississippi water out there, saying "We could use it. They don't want that much water." And of course, the Great Lakes states are always worried about whether we're going to see diversions off into the arid west. Where are we with that idea?

 PA: So, the Great Lakes are safe. The Great Lakes Compact is really a strong deterrent for water diversions. No one is talking about Great Lakes, water diversions, not long-range, large-scale diversions. These close to home diversions we talked about are a different story. And they're part of the process under the Great Lakes Compact.

But what we're seeing now, particularly in the state of Arizona, which in the southwest, California's the leader when it comes to potable water recycling. Nevada is sort of second in the region. Arizona's not nearly as far along when it comes to potable water recycling. And so Arizona right now is the lone state that is talking about diverting water from the Mississippi River. The legislature a few years ago asked Congress to study it. Congress ignored them. So now the state of Arizona is studying the practicality of diverting water from the Mississippi River to the Colorado River watershed as sort of an emergency project for the water situation in their state.

They're couching it in kind of a brilliant way. They're saying we want this to be a flood relief program in the Mississippi River and a drought relief program in the Colorado River. And so everyone should be in favor of this. But, the Mississippi River can go decades without flooding based on the research in the book. And what bad timing, given that, as I already said, the Mississippi River is running so low now that they have the saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico is actually backing up into the river system. And of course, as I address in the book, the idea that we would spend billions, if not trillions of dollars creating this system, which would take numerous power plants, just an enormous amount of energy to move that water uphill and then either through or over the Rocky Mountains, something that's never been done before. And then that expensive system is sitting there and we still have major drought and water scarcity in the southwest. You think that they would just hold off on floodwaters? Of course they would say, hey, we're desperate. We need water whether there's a flood or not.

And so it's a little bit, I think, insulting to people in the Mississippi River watershed that it would stop there. And so this is just kind of percolating, no pun intended, in the state of Arizona right now. They're just going to study it. But that's what they're talking about doing. And it's just amazing how this sort of the water diversion dragon raises its head and then goes back down again. This is not unusual in a time of water stress where a state or officials think this idea it would be a good one. Then they study it and they realize how expensive it would be. They realize how energy intensive it would be.

As I mentioned in the book, there are already a lot of old existing water diversions in the Southwest and the state water project that takes water from Northern California and sends it down to Southern California is the single largest consumer of energy in the state of California. So all those Google data centers and all that Apple campus and everything, those big operations there that we think of using a lot of energy, it turns out the State Water Project uses the most energy in the state of California. And these long range, large scale diversions would use so, so much more.

And what's really unique about the Arizona situation is that Arizona diverts water from the Colorado River through the Central Arizona Project and then there's also a Colorado River aqueduct, which takes water from the river to California. But what's unique about what Arizona is talking about doing is that no one has ever successfully diverted water from a water body that it did not adjoin or that it was not next to. And so we're talking about a multistate diversion for a water body that is, you know, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the Southwest. And so it's mind boggling to think about. But it's coming in and back into the headlines again.

 LG: In Michigan, there's a lot of talk about climate migration. And since we're wet and these areas are dry, we're expecting a lot of people to come to Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota because we've got all of this water. Is anybody talking about actually pulling up roots and moving because of water shortages?

PA: You know, I gave a seminar class on campus a few years ago, a small course with just seven people, and it included students and then people from the from the community. And as you know, I live up on on Lake Superior. So this is at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. And of the seven people in the class, two were climate refugees. One had moved from Colorado and another one had moved from California. They were tired of the fires. They were tired of the smoke. They were tired of the stress. And they had roots in the Great Lakes region. But they had left, gone to these dry areas and they had come back. And so there's a lot of talk about this in the Great Lakes region right now. I think it really kind of kicked off when several years ago, The New York Times had a front page story about Duluth, Minnesota, being the most climate resilient city in the United States. And many people, many water people, had extrapolated that conclusion for the entire Great Lakes watershed.

We're not going to know for a while whether this is going to be a huge movement or not. But I don't think the region is talking about it enough and especially preparing for what that might be. And so that's what we're starting to hear more and more about in the Great Lakes region, is that if this were to happen, what would that mean in terms of urban planning, water planning, sustainable community development and things like that. And so it's going to be really, really interesting because there are people I was talking to in the Southwest that were talking about moving not all of them, but many people, surprisingly, who had been there. And then the atmospheric rivers came in and said, well, maybe I don't have to really right now. But I gave a talk to 700 water experts in California last month, and I said, 'How many people here in this room think that the recent atmospheric rivers have solved the Southwest water problems?' Not a person raise their hand. And so this is a long term issue that's going to come back again and again in the Southwest. Climate driven water scarcity is real. They're feeling it. They're fearing it. It's driven them to this potable water recycling movement. But the real question will be, I think, for the Great Lakes region, will it drive them out of the region enough that we'll have, you know, a population resurgence here that, again. Who knows what the implications of that could be?

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