On Thursday, The New York Times published a piece titled “There’s Something in the Water in Virginia. Before You Say ‘Yuck,’ Wait.,” rejoicing in the fact that Virginia residents have been subjected to treated wastewater, not for agricultural or non-potable uses, but pumped into their drinking water source.
“Every day, the region’s sanitation system takes a million gallons of treated wastewater and pumps it back into the Potomac Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the area. And there are plans to increase that to 100 million gallons in the coming years,” The Times reports.
The general concept is not new— sewage treatment facilities are a fixture of our society for a reason. And most of us can stomach the concept of treated sewer water being used for non-potable reasons like watering plants, putting out fires, or washing our cars. But many of us would draw the line at cooking with or drinking it.
That’s where The New York Times comes in. Rather than ask or event address questions about the practice, The Times simply wants to reassure you that this is just a necessary part of the fight against Climate Change and “population growth.”
“Homes and industries in the area draw around 155 million gallons of groundwater each day. Natural replenishment is much slower in confined aquifers like the Potomac, where layers of impermeable clays and rocks beneath the surface make it hard for rainwater to seep back into the ground.
Even if people stopped drawing groundwater today, it could still take thousands of years for the aquifer to refill, said Mark Bennett, who runs the Virginia and West Virginia Water Science Center for the United States Geological Survey.
Meanwhile, without enough water to help support the ground, underlying sediments fall in on themselves and the surface collapses.
The second big problem is that, as more and more freshwater gets pumped out, the loss of pressure has left the aquifer vulnerable to saltwater contamination as denser seawater encroaches underground.
In low-lying coastal areas like Hampton Roads, climate change exacerbates that problem. That’s because as temperatures rise, ocean water expands in volume, causing sea levels to rise. And, glaciers on land melt at a faster rate, adding even more water to the oceans.”
And so, this is the simple price you pay for driving that gas guzzler, eating too many cheeseburgers, or having too many children. Drink the poop, bigot.
The Times highlights a “growing acceptance” of what it deceptively calls “wastewater reuse projects” (wastewater is often reused for non-drinking purposes), insisting that it is a practice that local governments will “have to consider” moving forward, “even in the regions that don’t face prolonged drought.”
“Around the country, cities and towns are increasingly turning to treated wastewater to augment their supplies of drinking water,” reports The Times. “The number of drinking-water reuse projects has quadrupled over the past two decades, according to data collected by the National Alliance for Water Innovation, a research program funded by the United States Department of Energy.”
The practice is called “potable reuse,” and while there is an ongoing push from the EPA for its implementation, there is shockingly little research into its safety.
A 2018 review (co-authored by EPA National Program Leader for Water Reuse Dr. Sharon Nappier) published in Current Environmental Health Reports conceded that “Overall, there have been relatively few health-based studies evaluating the microbial risks associated with potable reuse.”
“The few published epidemiology studies to-date have not identified any patterns of illness related to ongoing water reuse projects however many lacked sufficient power to detect such low level adverse health effects,” the report notes.
“The compilation of information presented here highlights the need to carefully consider water treatment choices when wastewater is a component of the drinking water supply,” it adds.
Report co-author Nappier was part of a team that developed the EPA’s National Water Reuse Action Plan (WRAP), released late February 2020, which asserts that “The changing climate is challenging many communities to meet their long-term water needs,” and touts that “reuse of treated wastewater and stormwater” for all uses, including potable, “can be more reliable than traditional raw water sources.”
“The capacity to incorporate water reuse into a community’s water portfolio can provide resilience against climate-induced impacts,” the EPA boasts.
While plenty of guidelines exist for potable reuse from institutions like the World Health Organization, much of the available research on the subject is funded by the EPA itself, or focuses on things like implementation status, or influencing public attitudes toward the practice. When studies do address safety, they typically focus on means of getting treated wastewater to a level of cleanliness that meets approved “drinking water” standards, rather than potential unforeseen consequences of the innovation.
Like Nappier’s, many studies simply conclude that more information and investigation is needed– like this one from 2006, that raises the important question of whether the potential for concentrated levels of endocrine disruptors in reused water systems should be of concern.
To Tell the Truth: Perhaps poop water is better for us than spring water— I don’t know. But I am not prepared to take the New York Times’ word for it. Especially considering that its strongest argument is that the practice is an “increasingly common strategy,” presented with a side of climate alarmism and a quote from a Berkeley Professor that insists “It is now necessary for us to consider options that would, in previous generations, be considered unthinkable,” in order to save the planet.
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