Unintended consequences of municipal water conservation

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As domestic water use has fallen, rates of wastewater reuse have risen; the United States now reuses between 10% and 15% of its wastewater. Photo credit: Tran, Jassby, and Schwabe.

Indoor residential water conservation can have unintended consequences in places where wastewater reuse has been implemented, diminishing both the quantity and quality of influent available for treatment, according to researchers from the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

The researchers outlined their findings in a recent paper, which appears online in the journal Water Research, published by the International Water Association.

“Drought, and the conservation strategies that are often enacted in response to it, both likely limit the role reuse may play in improving local water supply reliability,” wrote Quynh K. Tran, a UCR Ph.D. student in chemical and environmental engineering; David Jassby, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering; and Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy.

In the past, recycled water was only applied to areas such as low-value crops and median strips, Schwabe said. Recently, however, it has been considered safe to drink, provided it either undergoes multiple rounds of treatment to remove concentrations of salts, nutrients, and other contaminants, or is injected into the ground and pumped back out later.

As domestic water use has fallen, rates of wastewater reuse have risen; the United States now reuses between 10% and 15% of its wastewater. Photo credit: Tran, Jassby, and Schwabe.
As domestic water use has fallen, rates of wastewater reuse have risen; the United States now reuses between 10% and 15% of its wastewater. Photo credit: Tran, Jassby and Schwabe.

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“You often hear it never stops raining at a wastewater treatment plant, meaning the influent from households will continue to flow regardless of whether we’re in a drought or not,” Schwabe said. “It may be true that it will continue to ‘rain,’ but the quantity of flow can be severely impacted by drought and indoor conservation efforts, which has implications for the reliability of the system, especially when it comes to downstream or end users of the treated wastewater.”

Exacerbating the problem, as wastewater flows decrease, their levels of salinity and other pollutants increase. Higher levels of pollutants present significant challenges for treatment facilities that are not typically designed to handle “elevated concentrations of total dissolved solids, nitrogen species, and carbon,” according to Tran, Jassby and Schwabe.

While this research indicates indoor water conservation may affect the reliability and quality of water reuse during drought, the researchers said they are not suggesting people engage in less frequent conservation.

“These results highlight a central tenet of economics: that there’s a cost with every action we take,”  said Schwabe. “Our results are intended to illustrate how different drought mitigation actions are related so agencies can plan, communicate, and coordinate in the most informed and cost-effective manner possible.”

The researchers said solutions to higher levels of pollutants are available.

“Cost-effective blending strategies can be implemented to mitigate the water quality effects, increasing the value of the remaining effluent for reuse, whether it be for surface water augmentation, groundwater replenishment, or irrigation of crops, golf courses, or landscapes,” they wrote.

To develop an economic model by which wastewater can be treated in a more cost-effective way, thereby increasing its value, the researchers identified feasible wastewater treatment technologies and wastewater treatment trains either in use or available for potential use. A treatment train is a sequence of treatments aimed at meeting a specific standard.

“Our solution is based on a system of blending water,” Schwabe said. “Traditionally, wastewater facilities have operated by the principle that all the influent is treated to the fullest extent possible. But, depending on the sort of demand and regulations a treatment plant confronts for its effluent, managers may have the opportunity to be creative and achieve a much less costly outcome by treating only a portion of the influent with the most advanced technology and blending this with the remaining influent that has been treated but with a less advanced and thus lower-cost process.”

To read the original media release, visit: www.ucrtoday.ucr.edu

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