So, How Thirsty Are You?


R Donaldson – February 2009

Water, Water

It is most of what our bodies are made of, in some way included in every known biological function since the beginning of our worldly time and it covers most of our planet. It’s colorless, odorless and tasteless. It takes whatever form it’s given and you can see through it and your reflection at the same time.

There is some debate about where it came from [outer space many are now saying] but there is no debate about how much we need it. It’s second on the list of absolute and immediate needs: air, water, food. And as a result it’s a good reason why air, water and food are arguably three of the most regulated, or environs of concern, in most of the countries of the industrialized world. You last about five minutes without air but you can last two to three weeks or longer without food as long as you have: water.

When I was a young man my canteen went dry four hours into a seven hour antelope hunt in the high desert. Sage brush and volcanic rock went on for what seemed like a hundred miles, not a level place to put your foot, somewhere over 100 degrees and not a tree in sight. Getting mighty thirsty on my way to Dad and Jim, my little brother, I remembered back five years earlier when I “accidentally” went down a stretch of the Stanislaus River during the spring melt and almost didn’t make it. The irony made me laugh out loud although I was too parched to laugh much.

Water is like anything else I guess, good and bad. It can quench your thirst and drown you, all in the same day.

And just turn on the tap and it drops right out of the faucet like “magic.”

Most of it is billions of years old and all of it has been recycled one way or another, most of it millions of times. And yes it’s true, there is at least one water molecule in your body from any number of historical figures ranging from all of your long dead ancestors to Julius Caesar and back to T Rex and everybody in between.

One of the things we need the most and it literally drops from the sky.

We hope.

Drying Out

The great state of California as we know is in a drought. As of this writing the snow pack measurements indicate a third year. Unless this spring really turns things around. Even though it’s raining as I’m writing this piece, it is still highly unlikely that it will be enough in time to avoid a drought declaration. This will cause some type mandatory rationing in most of the state pitting agricultural needs against environmental needs against the urban and industrial needs.

California is an arid environment even in “good times.” Some don’t realize that we live in an arid state. As a result there is always a price to pay whenever we want pieces of it looking like Scotland. Whether it’s the central valley, the fruit and vegetable bowl of the Untied States, or that little piece of Scotland you call your front lawn.

We have a pretty interesting history with drought. Back between the years 900 and 1400 we had one last two hundred years [the medieval mega drought as it’s called] and another that lasted about 140 years. Then another 50 year “dry spell” around 1500. Since then a whole bunch of ten, five and three year droughts. We joined the dust bowl states back in 1929 through ’34, and since then a handful of short ones, then the one from ’87 to ’92, that if you are a local, you’ll remember.

The fact is, when it “stops” raining in California we don’t really know when it’s going to come back again. Think about that for a minute.

The California water project supplies water to 20 million Californians and over 660,000 acres of irrigated farm land. There is a tremendous amount of “hand wringing” going on right now as farmers try to figure out what crops they will be planting this summer or more importantly which ones they won’t. We all have a significant stake in those decisions. Last year our agricultural [Ag] losses in the San Joaquin Valley alone were over 300 million dollars. A number that some say will easily triple in 2009 if things stay dry, not to mention the availability or the price at the grocery store.

The governor did enact a water trading system to get water from places in the state that have enough water, to places that don’t have enough, which does make perfect sense. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself but if drought conditions are to continue into a 4th, 5th and 6th year [remember ’87 to ’92], we’ll eventually be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Colloquialisms aside, consequences will be dire.

Getting Warm

Additionally, not only are we not getting the rain we need but we aren’t getting the amount of snow we need either.

The snow of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the great California “water bank.” In a typical spring the reservoirs have stable inventories, the snow pack is deep with a high moisture content and just as the heat hits, and the central valley and your front lawn get thirsty, that snow melts right on time supplying a large dose of water just when its needed.

As the temperatures rise from a warming planet we loose that bank because we loose the water stored or “banked” as snow. As the snow now shows up as rain or it’s just too warm and the snow melts prematurely, our water bank “goes out of business.” Without the “snow bank” the current reservoir capacity in California can’t hold enough water to keep this banking system going in the purely liquid form.

Without the reservoir capacity that we need to hold winter water, for the amount of water that we need the following summer, as the growing season rolls around, we’ll be out of water at some point every summer even when its not a drought year.

I have thought a lot about that last sentence since I wrote it and it continues to concern me. It should you too.
Decision Time

With the recent court decisions to divert water to the San Francisco [SF] Bay Delta for the delta Smelt resulting in a significant water reduction diverted to the states two largest water systems, with dwindling rain fall from drought and potentially dwindling snow packs from higher global temperatures, coupled with movements wanting to preserve habitat and protect rivers that can promote blocking of new reservoir construction, and along with the ever increasing California population, we have some critical decisions showing up pretty fast.

Water uses are distributed roughly 80% Ag and 20% urban/industrial use. This doesn’t include the amount of water diverted for environmental purposes rightfully assuming diversion to the SF Bay delta results in a very small amount of drinking or Ag water down stream.

As the sources of our water become ever less, the three main uses [Ag, Urban and Environmental] will be forced ever more deeply in competition for the same drop of water.

Use It Again

Most of the folks in California get their water from rivers. The rivers of our state are not only the sources for irrigation and drinking water it is also where many our wastewater treatment plants place their highly treated effluent. So Californians have been drinking “modern” recycled water and have been for a very long time.

The US 1972 Clean Water Act, and the California Porter-Cologne act that preceded it, made it possible for upstream wastewater treatment plants to deposit clean effluent and still have that very same river supply down stream customers with water for their drinking water plants all the while successfully advancing the public health agenda.

Many don’t know that water and wastewater treatment plants do their work in only a matter of hours. If the outfall of the upstream wastewater treatment plant is only several hours away from a city’s drinking water intake, then that drink of water today was somebody else’s sewage just yesterday. We are drinking recycled water, not only in the ancient sense, but in the modern sense. And we’re not dropping dead. There is a reason for that.

The advent of recycled water standards that are promulgated from the California Department of Public Health have made recycled water even more available. To make a long story short a wastewater treatment plant with some investment dollars can produce “recycled water” to a standard that’s called “Disinfected Tertiary Recycled Water.” This water can be used for food crops, including all edible root crops, where the recycled water comes into contact with the edible portion of the crop, parks and playgrounds, school yards, residential landscaping, golf courses, and the like. This water is transported in purple pipe in compliance with regulations so that the modern recycled water can be separated from the fresh [or ancient recycled] water. And we’re not dropping dead. There is a reason for that.

Many public agencies are building a multitude of projects so that the water needs of the urban public can be balanced with the needs of an ever thirsty California. This will continue to stretch our water uses of recycled water. We have been seeing a multitude of new partnerships between cities, water agencies and recycled water treatment plants.

By recycling wastewater and using it for needs that we would otherwise be using for our fresh drinking water needs, it saves the drinking water for things that are more important, like thirsty people. Check the link to the WateReuse site to see more about current projects.

We are also seeing a growing movement of ground water recharging where recycled water is pumped or percolated into the ground only to be pumped back out sometime later as drinking water. This is a method of water banking using underground aquifers as storage.  In order for this to be a workable system one needs a workable aquifer. It’s a great solution for those that can do it, and many can. However, it’s not currently available for many of the 36 million that live here and will perhaps never be available to most. Coupled with the long term implications of our California water woes, we should also look at other options for our urban drinking water needs.  We’ll talk more about storage and its implications in a moment.

Closing the Loop

There is an important distinction to make here. Using recycled wastewater, from which its ultimate source was household sewage, is a necessary goal. It is an effective way of getting more fresh drinking water available for its important primary task of quenching our thirst. At the same time as the water is cleaned and used for purposes other than its previous use as drinking water the “use loop is opened.” This will become clearer in a moment.

Yes, it is true that by using the recycled water for the uses listed above we will ultimately save more “freshwater” for the purpose of drinking water. But it does so only as long as all our uses, including drinking water, are not restricted because of drought or global warming or for whatever reason we don’t have enough water. In other words, if at some point, we have to stop using water for lawns, parks, school yards and median strips because of drought or arid conditions which then also indicates probable dire conditions for drinking water sources, shouldn’t we then be using that recycled water for drinking?

Drinking water supplies don’t have to compete for other uses when water is plentiful. As water becomes scarcer, it does. If we can “close the loop” California’s drinking water supply should be able to significantly insulate itself from many of California’s water problems! If we don’t “close the loop” then as pressure builds for the many competing uses of water in the state, our drinking water supply also ends up on that same bargaining table. It’s already happening with the SF bay delta diversion.

If we literally have our wastewater treatment recycling plant delivering water to an Ultra Filtration Reverse Osmosis recycled water plant we could have a bountiful supply of high quality drinking water for our current urban needs and at a level of water quality better than most tap water in the world.

Drinking sewage? No way, that’s not what I am saying. With this technology by the time it gets back to us it’s NOT sewage any longer. Its just plain water. And that’s a plain fact.

Proven Technology

There is a method of treatment that can be added to our current systems called Ultra Filtration Reverse Osmosis [UF/RO] that even though it may have been recycled a million times over billions of years it comes out of this process as “very clean water.” And it is “better” than almost all the tap water we now drink.

Let’s talk a bit about RO. The RO system uses a semi-permeable “plastic” membrane that has holes in it only large enough to let water molecules through. The water is pressurized against this membrane and as the water passes through the very small holes in the membrane it is purified. It is not unusual that these systems are preceded with an ultra filtration [UF] process to make the most efficient use of the RO system. It is really important to point out here that these holes are really really small. According to the Singapore NEWater project if a water molecule were the size of a ping pong ball and the ping pong ball is barely allowed to squeeze through the holes in the membrane, then a hormone would be the size of a soccer ball, a virus the size of a truck and a bacteria the size of a skyscraper! That’s right; they are not getting through to the other side of the membrane and as result not getting into your glass of drinking water.

There is certainly capital cost and energy usage with these systems, as is so with any water treatment system. And, it is important to note that energy efficiency of the newer designs is improving steadily and significantly. Perth Australia has an RO desalinization plant that is fully energized by a wind farm. If they can do it there we can do it here. In terms of capital cost, the city of Oceanside California is expanding its existing RO system for treating brackish well water by about three million gallons of water a day [that’s a billion gallons of water a year] for an estimated capital cost of seven million bucks. After Orange County and the Alameda County Water District crunched the numbers the bottom line said it made sense and both plants are up and running. As always, society has to weigh its priorities of where to spend its hard earned dollars. And those priorities can be influenced by a thirsty populace.

Giant UF/RO systems for Desalinization are popping up all over the world, including California as noted. They are presently more popular across the globe than here in the states simply because the rest of the world doesn’t have the abundant freshwater sources, as compared to their urban populations, as we do here in the USA. That being said, our “California issues” might be forcing Californians to join the rest of the world as our water becomes scarcer.

For the sake transparency, the RO system does produce a salty “brine” side stream. Finding ways of disposing and processing of this brine is and will be a necessary issue that will need to be addressed on a system by system, location by location basis. Either way, to the best of my knowledge, brine disposal is not a deal breaker; as such RO remains a viable option for drinking water purposes.

Now RO water can taste a little funny simply because it has no taste. You see, when we “taste” water we are actually tasting the trace mineral content being carried away with the water. We have grown to enjoy the taste of water that has the slightest trace of mineral content. The best large scale local examples of this is Hetch Hetchy water supplied to San Francisco and many parts of the SF Bay Area and East Bay MUD water going to the east bay. This tap water from the Sierra Nevada mountians, beyond question, is some of the best drinking water in the world, yet we love its taste because of the very slight mineral content.

RO water mixed with some trace mineral elements, or simply mixed with some of the current supplies, would be in this same league!

Lastly as a side note, in case you were wondering, I am not in the business of monetarily profiting from selling RO systems.


One of the issues surrounding the use of recycled water in urban areas is where to put it, after you make it, until you actually need to use it. Storage can be a big issue. The fact is, local storage of recycled water in urban areas, whether its large multi multi million gallon storage tanks or small reservoirs, is really expensive if at first you even have the room for it! Google map a local urban center. Where would you put a reservoir? And if you can find a place, who’ll let you cover valuable land that is desired for development, with water?  Yes, underground water aquifers are underground reservoirs and again that’s great if you have one. And storage tanks can be built in some locations at a significant cost. It still doesn’t solve the problem for the majority of Californians. There is another answer however.

A significant attribute with using RO water is that wastewater production and freshwater usage from our communities track each other on a daily basis. Follow me here.

When we are all in bed we don’t use much fresh water and we don’t make much wastewater.  In the morning, we all get up and start hitting the showers and eating breakfast at about the same time causing the use of freshwater and the output of wastewater from our households and neighborhoods to climb dramatically at about the same time. Then they both level off about lunchtime at the daily maximum flow, again at about the same time. And then slowly declines as the day goes on and then drops off again at about the same time as we go back to bed that night if you allow for irrigation uses. Irrigation sprinklers often run at night.

What this means is: the fresh water, when you need it, has a ready source [recycled wastewater] in about the amount you need it, at about the same time when you need it. This can reduce the amount, cost and implications of the storage “problem” If the two systems are connected. “Closed loop”, remember?

As it turns out “storage” plays a key role in the psychology of public acceptance with recycled water. We’ll go over that next

It’s Us

One might ask: If it’s such a great idea why aren’t we doing it? Good question and there is a “good” answer. And, your water, wastewater and recycled water agencies aren’t letting you down just in case you were thinking that was the answer.

The answer is: PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE.   Or, the lack thereof, to be more to the point.

The problem is us. It is called the “yuck” factor. According to the American Psychology Association [APA] after some rather extensive research, we [not surprisingly] have an aversion to anything that touches excrement [feces]. Makes sense. Separating diseased water from our fresh water is the corner stone of a healthy civilization and the birth place of our own Clean Water Act. Even in ancient texts we are taught to shake hands with one hand and “do something else” with the other. Yet we seem to get carried away in that if “that” water has ever touched feces then we don’t want to have anything to do with it even if it is not touching it anymore. The fact is every water molecule Californians drink every day has already touched feces somewhere along its long journey.

The question is: can education alone help us get over the yuck factor? It doesn’t seem so or it will only happen over an extended period of time, over generations.

Yet, as we get thirstier it might help fortify the educational approach. For those in the recycled water business you might hear a collective “sigh” from that statement. And rightfully so.

Water and wastewater agency officials that have tried to educate the public on the proactive benefits of recycled water very often subject themselves to very difficult and humbling public experiences only to be shot down by irrational fears on the part of the public. Many do prevail in their efforts to convince the public and more and more are successful with each passing project.

The polls in Australia seem to indicate that people from more highly  educated backgrounds warm up to the idea of drinking RO water from a recycled water source.

As far as I can tell from my research and observations, the four main factors that can potentially promote recycled water for drinking water purposes among the general public are: 1) Education [which we now know sometimes doesn’t work very well with the current generation], 2) Thirst [which is a “wait and see” factor which may have great promise], 3) Endorsements from trusted environmental organizations and 4) something called psychological “blind spotting.” Some of these items, 1, 3 and 4 specifically, have been explored by the APA.

According to the APA work, most apple juice lovers wont drink apple juice from a bedpan even if it is brand new and assurances have been made that it has never been used for its originally intended purpose. There are more examples but suffice it to say education falls to the way side having been done in by the yuck factor.

Also according to the APA, people can however feel better about recycled water because of two factors. One is if an environmental group that they trust endorses it. And two, if there is a way to slightly distance the source from the use it then creates a “blind spot” according to the psychologists. As noted before, folks don’t seem to have a problem when their drinking water intake is just a few hours down stream from the upstream wastewater treatment plant or with ground water recharge or percolation ponds when they hear the water takes six months to get down to the drinking water well.  So we have found a way to satisfy that distance requirement with some modern RO systems that helps today’s Californians get past the yuck factor when we employ almost any type of storage.

If we have a place “to put it for awhile” prior to drinking [ground water recharge, percolation reservoirs, and rivers] folks feel friendlier towards recycled water.

Conflicting Means

As you may have gathered this starts to define the issue more closely. Adding some type of storage helps to “blind-spot” the problem making drinking recycled water more palatable to the general public. While at the same time implications of the storage issue seems to indicate that the ability to store the recycled water can’t easily be done for the majority of the 36 million Californians. So there’s the dilemma.

I know the following is going back to the dubious educational approach, but coupled with “thirst” Californians might start coming around.

If Californians can start to see clearly that ALL water is recycled water and that the only attribute that differentiates its quality is the method by which it is treated or purified then we already have the answer to thee critical question: Will our urban drinking water supply be compromised with the all the water problems we are having now and will be having state-wide into the future?  Again, that answer is: it doesn’t have to be with RO systems in use.

We rely on proven technology to tell us its okay to pass thru an intersection even if we are looking for cross traffic. We are betting our life many times a day that the green light means something. The technology of the day gives us some of the finest quality food in the world. We think nothing of climbing into a hunk of aluminum technology that carries us at 28,000 feet with an outside air temperature of negative 50 degrees [F] at hundreds of miles an hour, and our only concern is about the food being served on the flight.

As a private pilot, knowing first hand that many don’t like flying in small planes, I would propose that we are “blind-spotted” from the potential danger of flying in large aircraft because the commercial air flight industry has successfully and reliably turned flying into an aerial “living room” experience that the general public is willing to accept. So much so, that even with an airliner crash in the news, ticket sales don’t drop off.

Can Californians do the same with RO drinking water that ultimately comes from a wastewater recycled treatment plant as its source without storage first?

Projects building RO for desalinization purposes are amassing all over the world. In Australia, RO is providing more and more drinking water. Australia also seems to be heading for providing RO drinking water production from recycled municipal wastewater by placing the RO water into reservoirs. In Singapore, the NEWater process producing RO from wastewater for chip manufacturing, designed by CH2MHILL, and the Ashkelon desalinization plant in Israel, built and operated by Veolia, were at one time the international large RO flagship projects. Now huge plants are opening up everywhere from Kuwait to South Korea and all points in-between. As noted earlier, here at home, the city of Oceanside is expanding their RO treatment plant for brackish well water. Orange County CA has a very large plant using RO from recycled effluent for ground water recharge to protect their aquifer from salt intrusion and a percolation reservoir that ultimately ends up as drinking water. And just over the hill from me, the Alameda County Water District’s RO desalinization plant is reliably supplying high quality drinking water using brackish well water that is partially fed by water from the San Francisco Bay.

There is a way, regardless of how difficult our water questions become, that California can continue to have high quality drinking water sources for our future urban population. And in fact, the future will most assuredly come with the difficult questions that have been raised here. The reliability of RO water from desalinization can be also be reliably produced from recycled wastewater.

Bottom Line

In the past, public acceptance of recycled water has always become more “acceptable” during drought conditions. According to the California Department of Water Resources, California is facing the most significant water crisis in its history. Will “thirst” be a good enough reason to drive California’s acceptance of UF/RO water from recycled wastewater for drinking water purposes? If shortage issues continue to rise fellow Californians, I think we’re going to find out.

Current and proven technology has answers to our collective urban water problems.

In the scientific community most produce the report that then “stalls” on the shelf of those that need votes to keep their jobs. Scientists take their rightful place as the “advisor” and the politician taking their rightful place representing their constituents.

In fact, anything else would otherwise place them in an unpopular position. Who can blame them? It’s not a “them” problem. Not solving some problems in a democracy is a continuing systemic issue that inherently won’t let politicians promote unpopular positions; regardless of how much sense the idea might make and still keep their job. Nothing new here.

Again, the problem is “us.”

Bottom line: The lack of “public acceptance” based on the irrational fear of the yuck factor seems to shield the sophisticated and authentic educational arguments that in turn simply doesn’t allow the “political permission” for the implementation of this important technology on a wide scale basis for the purpose of recycling wastewater for drinking water purposes.

Any important message that seems to fall onto the deaf ears of society is what turns citizens into activists and scientists into advocates. Global warming is a recent example of that type of advocacy.

Well, our recycled water “Reverse Osmosis potential” is starting to produce that same effect. Some are asking the question: why aren’t we using this technology for the betterment of all of us? But again, repeatedly “heeled” by the lack of public acceptance.

As the California tap is squeezed ever tighter for competing uses of water, we need to know that there is an answer for our urban high quality drinking water needs.

There is only one question we need to ask ourselves when these problems certainly start to rise:

So, how thirsty are you?

Bob Donaldson is a California native, has been in the wastewater industry for 30 years, holds a Grade V operators certificate from the State Water Resources Control Board and is currently a Senior Capital Improvement Program Manager in Northern California. .

Advance Comments on this article:

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Helpful Source Links for those that want to learn more:

California Department of Water Resources, Environment:

California Department of Public Health Recycled Water Regulations, January 2009:

American Psychology Association, monitor on psychology:

Peter Martin BLOG – Economics, Canberra, human behavior:

Chemical and Engineering news, Orange County:

Water – WateReuse Foundation

Oceanside RO, article/

Oceanside RO, Desalinization and Reuse:

Singapore RO:

Alameda County Water District’s RO desalinization:,1,Newark Desalination Facility

Comments (9 comments)

ClintJCL / February 7th, 2009, 6:02 pm / #1

Sean, you might like this:

p.s. why doesn't your blog remember my name/email/url anymore? Is that intense debate? It's enough to make me not comment because every blog I regularly comment on fills those values in.

BlackSun / February 7th, 2009, 10:01 pm / #2

Clint, good graphic. Although I think their solution of deep aquifer pumping is still just refusing to face the water-recycling issue. There are three things we can do: Combine treated RO wasterwater with our drinking water as the article recommends, recycle gray water in our homes (as well as install rainwater catchment systems), and of course conserve. As long as we are using gallons of drinkable water to flush our toilets, we have not truly faced the issue. Every house should have a gray water tank for flushing toilets and watering lawns and gardens. There are also toilets that allow for urine collection, which is a whole other conversation. Urine is extremely valuable as a fertilizer.

As for comments, sign up for Intense Debate and it will remember you. You can use your OpenID if you have one. IDC is a work in progress. In many ways the WordPress system is better, but I like being able to track people across multiple sites. It increases the social dynamic.

JerryC / February 7th, 2009, 8:52 pm / #3

Excellent plain English explanation of our water problem and how extensive use of recycled water could and should be a major part of the solution. Ought to required reading for all thinking Californians (and some of those elected officials in Sacramento also).

BlackSun / February 7th, 2009, 10:06 pm / #4


Fantastic article, thank you so much for contributing this. You're someone who doesn't just talk about dealing with our collective shit, you actually do it. I shudder to think of the political battles it's going to take to get some of this implemented. Like you said, "How thirsty are we?," how much pain is it going to take before that pain is going to overwhelm the instinctual disgust people feel?

But the most important thing you said that people have to remember is that:


Thanks again for your eloquence and hard work.

Beb Stone / February 9th, 2009, 2:27 am / #5

There was an article in the NY Times a while back [oct 21 07] titled The future is drying up. It's a shocking article about water in the future

BlackSun / February 9th, 2009, 2:34 am / #6

I may have linked to that one in this previous article:

Ben Stone / February 10th, 2009, 2:07 am / #7

I think you may be correct

the chaplain / February 11th, 2009, 1:14 am / #8

As others have said, excellent post. I'll confess that I don't pay as much attention to the water issue as I should.

Black Sun Journal » Astronauts Begin To Drink Recycled Water / May 20th, 2009, 7:06 pm / #9

[…] out Bob Donaldson’s excellent previous article on the […]

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