This article originally appeared in WQP September 2021 as "Make it Do, Do Without"
Calvin Coolidge is said to have coined the phrase “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” to encourage Americans to cope with shortages and rationing during World War I. This frugality inspired generations of American to live within their means, and helped the U.S. become one of the most prosperous and food-secure nations of the era. When it comes to water though, Americans and others around the world have not always been that prudent. Massive population growth coupled with industrialized agriculture has created unprecedented water-usage; rivers have been dammed, aquifers depleted, and deserts grown all in the name of human progress. Our inattention to this precious resource is now causing many to have to “do without.”
Historically, wasteful water-usage coupled with increasing climate-stress brought us to the point that many areas worldwide no longer had enough water to support local agriculture or the needs of their residents. This forced many to evaluate conservation and reuse of water in ways previously unheard of, often resulting in heavy-handed legislation with unintended negative side-effects.
On February 27, 2020, at an event at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler joined federal, state, tribal, local and water sector partners to announce the National Water Reuse Action Plan: Collaborative Implementation. The actions that EPA and its partners committed to in the action plan will help enhance the sustainability, security and resilience of our nation’s precious water resources by developing new partnerships, providing accountability, and promoting transparency as all stakeholders work together to help preserve water resources.
While much of the current government activity is still in the “plans about plans” stage, water quality improvement professionals need to understand more about this issue so that we too can do our part.
For our industry specifically, four broad techniques are available to help us minimize the strain placed on traditional water supplies.
As simple as it sounds to conserve, a lot of people are not sure quite where to start. It means quite simply; we need to use less water to accomplish the same tasks. In the water quality improvement industry, conservation means wasting less water in our processes. When softening or dealkalizing, we can often reduce water consumption by as much as 20% in switching from downflow to upflow regeneration and using less backwash water by incorporating a plated tank instead of traditional gravel underbedding.
Some innovators are also utilizing brine recovery techniques that further reduce water used during regeneration. Others are incorporating drain conductivity monitors into their systems control scheme, thereby only rinsing until they need to instead of “guesstimating” the rinse durations required. Reverse osmosis and other membrane separation systems have improved significantly over the last 10 years when it comes to energy input and water discharged. They can use even less water by incorporating new low-energy membranes, advanced antiscalants and air-scouring techniques.
While there is plenty of advice on how homeowners can save water, it is good to have a brief reminder to improve our own water usage footprint along with educating our clients.
While many advocate for spartan toilet-flushing, showering, laundry and bathing deprivations in the name of “efficiency,” I believe it makes sense to address the biggest potential for gain first. Outdoor irrigation is the single largest consumer (and potential waster) of water for most homes. Repairing leaks, resetting heads to avoid overspray onto non-permeable surfaces, replacing turf with native grass, and employing water-wise xeriscaping can cut water usage for the average home by as much as 5,000 gallons per month.
2. Non-Potable Reuse
The changing climate makes it challenging for many communities to meet their long-term water needs. Reuse of treated wastewater and storm water for agricultural, non-potable or even drinking provides an alternative source of water that can sometimes be more reliable than traditional raw water sources. The ability to incorporate water reuse into a community’s water portfolio can aid in developing resilience against climate-induced impacts. While municipalities and local authorities are moving slowly to do their part, those in the water industry can make accelerated improvements. Much of the water “wasted” by water quality improvement equipment can be reused and repurposed. The easiest reuse target is the concentrate from a membrane separation system. Many smart plant operators are repurposing this water for landscape irrigation, dust control, fire suppression and even for humidification when circumstances permit. At the domestic level, graywater can also be cost-effectively filtered and repurposed for subsurface irrigation.
3. Potable Reuse
“Toilet to tap” is a phrase that is still disconcerting to many people, since the “yuck” factor is hard to overcome psychologically. The reality though is that all water is recycled at some point. It is not unrealistic to say that the clear water in your glass might have passed through the kidneys of a dinosaur or blue whale at some point. From a technical perspective, current technologies make “toilet to tap” safer than ever before. Singapore’s NEWater project is a shining real-life example of how to do this right; reclaimed wastewater is microfiltered, purified through reverse osmosis and returned to subterranean aquifers where it can be used again – safely. NEWater has been in production since 2002, and the Singaporeans continue to expand their plant capacity and efficacy. The water tastes good too.
4. Alternative Sourcing
In the U.S., private domestic rainwater harvesting was slow to be adopted due to outdated state water-rights issues that have only recently been resolved. Now, most states allow small-scale domestic rainwater harvest collection and retention without the bureaucracy and mountains of paperwork that were previously required. The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) worked tirelessly in the development of ARCSA/ASPE/ANSI 63-2013: Rainwater Catchment Systems Standard that was approved as an American National Standard by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) on November 14, 2013.
Many progressive water treatment dealers are now embracing the techniques outlined in this standard to help their clients harvest the free supply of rainwater that falls on their property throughout the year. Every rainwater harvest system requires filtration, purification and disinfection; services best-provided by a Water Quality Association-certified water specialist.
The water industry will continue to innovate on these fronts, and I expect innovation will make a much larger impact for good than legislation ever will. Whether your area is affected by a declared water shortage or not, it just makes sense to conserve; it is the right thing to do. There is no less water on the planet now than there was on day one, it is just more polluted than before, and we just have more users clamoring for it in more places that do not naturally have it. While charismatic politicians with interesting ideas will come and go, the solution to our water woes is not legislative, but rather a matter of a paradigm-shift in how we perceive the value of water. It can no longer be a disposable gift from the sky, it must rather be cherished as the precious commodity that it is. As stewards of water quality, we have a responsibility to lead by example, and employ conservation technologies wherever we can. Water conservation and intelligent reuse is crucial to our survival as a species as well as the protection of the ecosystem. It is not too late to start; we owe it to future generations.