Press Releases

The drought demands creative solutions, but this plan has faced trouble in the past.

With California’s drought continuing to drain the state’s reservoirs and water supplies, and Governor Jerry Brown demanding a 25-percent decrease in urban water usage, one previously unattractive option is gaining some steam.

Treating sewage water, known as potable reuse, was floated as an option in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Californians ultimately decided they couldn’t bear the idea of what some called a “toilet to tap” system. According to the Los Angeles Times, attitudes may be shifting amid the bleak backdrop of the ongoing and historic drought.

There are two main ways sewage water is treated to become drinkable. One involves a three-step process involving a microfilter, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light, and hydrogen peroxide. Another, which the Times said was defeated in California in the past, involves the use of an “environmental buffer” such as a reservoir or aquifer. The water is placed in the buffer before entering a traditional water-treatment plant.

A plant in Orange County, California, has already been turning used water into potable water. Such treatment plants began contributing to the drinking-water supply in 2008, according to a CNN article from last year. One plant in Namibia has been supplying water for local residents since 1968.

Toilet-to-tap stories and trend pieces have popped up multiple times in the past few years. The consensus is that an effective P.R. campaign and a dire water shortage are two factors that could turn the tide when it comes to public opinion about treating sewage water. In California, a U.C. Davis professor and water treatment expert estimates that treated sewage water could supply 20 percent of the state’s population by 2020.

Related: From Almond Milk to the Putting Green: California Drought Shaming, Diagrammed

“In many ways, it’s cleaner than the water people are already consuming,” U.C. Berkeley professor David Sedlak told a local CBS affiliate in April. “If you’ve ever been to Southern California or the Southwest where the water tastes funny, you’re probably tasting all the dissolved salts in the water and they make it unpalatable. This recycled water has much lower levels of salt. If people could do a side-by-side taste comparison, it tastes better than a lot of the water you get around the country.”

Earlier this year, BuzzFeed created a taste-test video, in which typically over eager millennials try to identify which cup of water they drank was originally sourced from sewage water. Though the (non-scientific) results suggest that the treated water tastes just fine, one of BuzzFeed’s guinea pigs voices a familiar concern: “I don’t care. No, it’s just, it’s poop water, you know? I know what’s been in there. Even if it’s all gone.”

The coming resource wars

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” — Kenneth Boulding, author of “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”

One global power, the United States, and two regional powers, China and Russia, are making up plans — and adding to their armies — for future use that will have none of the political dogma that was a part of the past 100 years. The Middle East is a proving ground for crude oil, an essential energy source for the modern world regardless of what the Greens preach. The real test for survival will come as the world population continues to grow. Fresh water is already a growing global concern; and without plentiful water, food stocks will draw down.

It all comes down to numbers. What would you think if I made you this offer?

Come and work for me as a special consultant. I will write you a 30-day contract for you to work for me, and I will pay you one penny on your first day. Each day thereafter, I will double your salary. On Day 2 I will pay you 2 cents, and on Day 3 I will pay you 4 cents.

If you understand exponential growth (growth by a constant fraction of the growing quantity during a constant time period), you will expect such a contract to be fortuitous by its expiration. But even I was shocked at the numbers.

As your employer, the doubling and then the redoubling of your salary would be only $5.12 on the 10th day. By the 15th day, I would have to pay $164. But by the 20th day, the exponential growth of your salary would cost me $5,243. Finally, by the 30th and last day of our contract, I would owe you a check for $5,368,709 for eight hours of work.

Of course, long before the 30th day, our contract would be void. I’ve never had anything close to $5 million, and no banker would extend me such credit (especially if I made crazy deals like the one above). Somewhere around the 20th day, our agreement would hit critical mass — a point from which I could not fulfill my obligation.

The Earth’s population is also growing exponentially. While it is not doubling every day, it is doubling every 40 years. As this growth multiplies upon itself, the finite resources of the Earth are stretched so far that the last war fought by humankind will be over the same things the first war was fought over: water, shelter and food.

When my great-grandfather was born in 1851, there were roughly a billion people on the planet, double Earth’s population in 1500. That type of growth rate — a doubling every 350 years — was consistent with the rate of increase to humankind from the dawn of agriculture to beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

In a way my great-grandfather’s generation was the first of the baby boomers, for his was the first generation to be the leading wave of the first human population explosion.

When my grandfather Amil was born in 1881, the global population totaled 1.5 billion people. Between his birth and his father’s birth 30 years before, the world had added half-again as many souls.

When my father was only 13, in 1925, Earth’s population was 2 billion. By 1976, when I was in high school, it had doubled to 4 billion. The current population is more than 7 billion. By 2050, the world population is predicted to stand at 9.5 billion.

Last summer, Real Clear World put these numbers in context:

That’s 35 percent more than today’s 7 billion — the equivalent of adding a new Africa and China to the world in just over a single generation. And the demand for added resources will actually rise more than 35 percent, because the 4 billion people presently surviving on the equivalent of $5 a day or less won’t be content to live at subsistence level for the rest of their lives. Lifting them up will take more — much more — of everything, as the average person living in the industrialized world today consumes or uses 40,000 pounds each year of metals, from aluminum to zinc, and more than 70 elements in between.

I have spoken with agronomists who say that in order to support population increases, the word will have to quadruple its agriculture production and increase its energy output by a factor of eight.

Some 160 years after the Industrial Revolution commenced, man is drinking dry the Earth’s wellspring. The end result could be the collapse of civilization and loss of civil liberties.

Global populations could be so greatly reduced that the nation state may find an excuse to use sweeping powers. Society could eventually revert to the breakdown that prevailed during the Dark Ages, where fundamentalist religions and local despots dominated human existence.

Yours in good times and bad,

Is Water A Right, Commodity, Or Service?

Is water a commodity, a service, or a right? Recently, the debate has raged.

Daniel Van Abs, a water policy professor at Rutgers University, raised that question in a recent editorial published in NJ Spotlight. Van Abs is a water policy professor at Rutgers University who served as senior director for planning and science with the New Jersey Highlands Council, a water-protection implementation body. He has since retired from state government.

Van Abs posed this question in his post: “Is water, as the U.N. states, a fundamental human right? Or is it a commodity that must be purchased at the going rate? Or is it a public service, in which the focus is on satisfying a social goal for provision of general needs?”

“Our history shows us that water supply has aspects of all three, which makes for a muddled policy setting. What do we do when basic water services exceed a customer’s ability to pay? As water rates rise to address the costs of system rehabilitation, enhanced drinking-water treatment, and source-water protection, we need to make sense of this mess,” he continued.

Detroit officials sparked protests last year by shutting off water service for thousands of delinquent customers, a move that prompted questions about whether shutoffs violate human rights. “The city, which continues to close as many as 400 accounts a day, has been widely criticized for its actions,” CBS News reported. United Nations advisers have argued that Detroit violated human rights during a frenzy of water shutoffs.

Cities other than Detroit have also used water shutoffs to handle ratepayer delinquency. “In Michigan, Hamtramck, Warren, Pontiac, Eastpointe, Romulus and other cities have shut off delinquent customers as a way to improve collections. Elsewhere, so have other big cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

Van Abs noted that New Jersey is no stranger to ratepayer delinquency. “New Jersey has areas of high poverty that have lost most of their industrial water customers. And much of the state’s water-supply infrastructure is old, if not decrepit,” he wrote.

To Van Abs, there are problems with calling water a guaranteed public service. “The costs could be handled like many other public services (such as police or courts), through the property tax, with local governments paying the water utility to provide the service. Doing so would remove incentives for efficient water use, unless provisions are made to limit the service by household to only what is necessary. Just imagine the problems with this approach. Government would have to track the number of people per household to ensure that a single-person household and a five-person household are provided for equitably,” he said.

There are also problems with calling water a commodity, since it means water shutoffs if customers cannot pay. “Clearly, this approach is not socially acceptable for those of limited means,” Van Abs writes.

What if water were treated as a basic human right? For utilities to be empowered to treat service as such, policy changes would be needed in many places, including New Jersey.

“The problem is that New Jersey has no routine system for helping poor households afford water (and sewer) services. For residential energy, the NJ Board of Public Utilities regulates essentially all providers, and New Jersey has established several programs for temporary and long-term assistance. The same is not true of water supply utilities, since there are hundreds of government and privately owned water utilities in New Jersey. Establishing a unique household assistance program in each of these utilities would be an administrative nightmare, and some are too small or serve too poor an area to provide this aid,” Van Abs wrote.

“A broader approach is needed. New Jersey needs to take a hard look at how its poorest households will maintain access to water utility services as water and sewer rates increase. We shouldn’t allow the Detroit question to become the New Jersey problem,” Van Abs wrote.

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Triton Stormwater Solutions, LLC
7600 Grand River Rd, Suite 195
Brighton, Michigan 48114
Phone: (810) 222-7652 - Fax: (810) 222-1769
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