June 11, 2015

When water utility executives get together to discuss issues of concern in the industry, adequate and sustainable future supply is always high on the list.  Recently there is a growing interest in potable reuse projects, as they hold an additional alternative for diversifying the portfolio of water sources for America’s water systems.

At the March annual Water Policy Conference of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies in Washington, D.C., drinking water system leaders took part in an interactive discussion with a panel of reuse policy experts from federal and state regulatory agencies and academia to address this important alternative water source. Water reuse – the use of treated wastewater, or “reclaimed” water, for beneficial purposes such as drinking, irrigation or industrial uses – is an emerging option that is helping some communities significantly expand their water supplies.

The interaction on water reuse policies, principles and practices raised several important questions that need to be addressed before the real potential of potable reuse – both direct potable reuse (DPR) and indirect potable reuse (IPR) – can be tapped.

Dr. Peter Grevatt, Director of EPA’s Drinking Water Office, addressed the agency’s efforts to understand the current practice of potable reuse and to help states address key issues and concerns surrounding DPR and IPR projects. While observing that water reuse discussion is primarily on the wastewater side, Dr. Grevatt said EPA, going forward, will also include drinking water.

Dr. George Tchobanoglous, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, shared the work of the National Water Research Institute expert panel that is developing a potable reuse framework. He reviewed various promising treatment trains for advanced water treatment and observed that potable reuse provides an opportunity for renaissance in designing wastewater treatment.

Valerie Rourke, the Water Reclamation and Reuse Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, provided the viewpoint of a state regulator.  When considering water reuse, she said water systems must identify future supply deficits, estimate costs of reuse and compare the pros and cons of alternatives.  If it’s decided to pursue reuse, then assessing public sentiment and coordinating with regulators should be at the top of the agenda, she said.

The ensuing give and take among the panelists and water system managers considered questions about the design, maintenance and operation of IPR and DPR projects, as well as the costs and energy implications of water reuse and alternative sources.  The group also considered good examples of public outreach for effectively communicating the case for potable reuse to often dubious consumers.

Not every question about water reuse has a definitive answer at this time, but the topic is front and center for today’s water systems.  And constructive discussion is turning to productive action.