Possible health advantages from wastewater reuse - NRC report
New analyses suggest that the possible health risks of exposure to chemical contaminants and disease-causing microbes from wastewater reuse do not exceed and, in some cases, may be significantly lower than the risks from existing water supplies, says a new US national report.This progressive conclusion is contained in a report Water Reuse: Potential for Expanding the Nation's Water Supply Through Reuse of Municipal Wastewater produced by a committee set up by the National Research Council and announced on 11 January 2012.
Reuse of municipal wastewater for drinking water, irrigation, industry and other applications could "significantly" increase the United States' total available water resources, particularly in water-short coastal areas, the committee believes.
"Wastewater reuse is poised to become a legitimate part of the nation's water-supply portfolio, given recent improvements to treatment processes," said R Rhodes Trussell, chair of the NRC Committee on the Assessment of Water Reuse as an Approach to Meeting Future Water Supply Needs and president of Trussell Technologies of Pasadena, California. "Although reuse is not a panacea, wastewater discharged to the environment is of such quantity that it could measurably complement water from other sources and management strategies."
The report examines a wide range of reuse applications, including potable water, non- potable urban and industrial uses, irrigation, groundwater recharge, and ecological enhancement. Potable water reuse projects account for only a small fraction of the volume of water currently being reused.
However, many drinking water treatment plants draw water from a source that contains wastewater discharged by a community located upstream; this practice is not officially acknowledged as potable reuse.
The report outlines wastewater treatment technologies for mitigating chemical and microbial contaminants, including both engineered and natural treatment systems. These processes can be used to tailor wastewater reclamation plants to meet the quality requirements of intended reuse applications. The concentrations of chemicals and microbial contaminants in reuse projects designed to augment drinking water supplies can be comparable to or lower than those commonly present in many drinking water supplies.
The committee emphasized the need for process reliability and careful monitoring to ensure that all reclaimed water meets the appropriate quality objectives for its use.
The committee said that water-reuse projects tend to be more expensive than most water conservation options and less expensive than seawater desalination and other new supply alternatives. Although the costs of reclaimed water are often higher than current water sources, the report urges water authorities to consider other costs and benefits in addition to monetary expenditures when assessing reuse projects.
For example, water reuse systems used in conjunction with a water conservation program could be effective in reducing seasonal peak demands on the drinking water system. Depending on the specific designs and pumping requirements, reuse projects could also have a larger or smaller carbon footprint than existing supply alternatives or reduce water flows to downstream users and ecosystems.
Water-reuse regulations differ by state and are not based on risk-assessment methods, the report says. Adjustments to the federal regulatory framework could help ensure a high level of public health protection, provide a consistent minimum level of protection across the nation, and increase public confidence in potable and non-potable water reuse.
The report notes that existing legislative tools could be applied to improve the quality of water for reuse, including updating the National Pretreatment Program's list of priority pollutants to include a wider inventory of known toxic substances. It also lists 14 areas of research to help guide the country on how to apply water reuse appropriately. Such research would require improved coordination among federal and nongovernmental organizations.
The study was sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Reclamation, National Science Foundation, National Water Research Institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Water Research Foundation, Orange County Water District, Orange County Sanitation District, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, Irvine Ranch Water District, West Basin Water District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency.