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Necessity – The Mother of Action

In 1998 the San Diego water department proposed that the city reuse household waste water for all purposes, including drinking water. There was strong public reaction, and critics used the phrase “toilet to tap” in a successful campaign to defeat the proposal. Today’s New York Times story, “As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows From Taps,” chronicles a change of heart in San Diego driven by fear of severe water shortages and an effective public education campaign. Business leaders pitched in, claiming that San Diego’s water shortages could push them to move their businesses away, and they supported acting on what scientists said could be done safely to reclaim waste water. San Diego now has a new plant which processes a million gallons of waste water a day for the public’s general use.

Scientists and environmentalists helped move opinions, pointing out that every water molecule is recycled countless times as Mother Nature uses water. The Earth is basically a closed physical system, and we are stuck with the amount of water the planet has given us to use over and over again. It’s our future, and San Diego and a few other cities worldwide have acted wisely to reuse sewer water despite some public resistance. That said, there are tradeoffs in any industrial recycling. Human recycling processes require energy, usually from burning hydrocarbons, with familiar environmental impacts and financial costs. Consuming less, whether it’s clean water or other natural resources, is almost always our best long term response to natural resource scarcity. Reclaiming waste water takes a small fraction of the energy that industrial desalination takes, but that’s still a lot more than if we all became more frugal at the faucet.


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