One of the key issues in a bill (SB 64) filed by Sen. Ben Albritton, whose district includes much of our membership area, is how the increased use of treated sewage (aka reclaimed water) will affect the environment.
At first glance, the bill has a laudable goal, which is to eliminate most discharges from sewer plants into lakes, rivers and other surface waters. This continues a trend that has been under way for many years that has involved diverting the water discharged by sewer plants to irrigate crops or lawns or to provide cooling water for power plants.
But like many seemingly environmentally-friendly proposals this one contains loopholes that have raised questions.
It allows the water to be discharged into water bodies to meet minimum flows and levels, though that substandard flow is typically the result of overpumping the aquifer to meet increasing development water demand or overdraining the surrounding landscape for commercial or agricultural development.
One of the issues in using treated sewage for augmenting surface water flows and levels or for any attempt to use it to augment aquifers to be used for future drinking water supplies is that its changing chemical composition.
At one time, the main concern was either bacteria or the release of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen that lower surface water quality, sometimes by quite a bit.
Today the concern is about a mix of sometimes hard to detect chemicals from pharmaceutical compounds whose health effects for humans and wildlife are not completely understood.
That also relates to another provision of the bill that involves something called “potable reuse,” which means treating sewage to the point that it can supposedly be used as drinking water, the so-called “toilet to tap” process that is already in use in other parts of the country.
The bill calls for studies. The outcomes of such studies will rely on who conducts the studies.
This comes against the background of this section’s preface that states ” sufficient water supply is imperative to the future of this state and that potable reuse is a source of water which may assist in meeting future demand for water supply.”
In that same vein, the bill proposes to mandate local officials to enact developer subsidies to get more homes per acre if they implement the installation of gray water systems, which are systems that reuse any water that does down the drain in showers, bathtubs and washing machines (but not toilets and kitchen sinks) for lawn irrigation.
This reduces the use of higher quality water for lawn irrigation, but doesn’t deal with the fact that lawn irrigation is an unnecessary water use in a state that already has a well-documented water supply problem caused by overconsumption.
According to a recent study, newer homes—most of which come equipped with automatic irrigation systems—typically use more water that older homes.
Additionally, the proposal would saddle homeowners will the responsibility of maintaining these systems after the developers have collected their density incentives and moved on.
This bill merits a lot of serious discussion.