In much of the western U.S., water demand vastly outstrips supply. Some municipalities are moving toward a greater use of recycled waste water as a means to stretch supply. It sounds good in theory, but how far should it go?
The Environmental Protection Agency has some guidelines on the use of recycled water -- much of which is geared toward non-potable uses (e.g., irrigation).
Something I find disturbing about the whole discussion is just what is left behind in the treatment process. Check out Wikipedia for a primer on water treatment if you are unfamiliar with the process. The EPA mandates that most municipalities treat their water through the "Secondary Treatment" stage. Water treated to the Secondary level is by no means drinkable. The EPA recommends it only be used for things with limited human exposure such as irrigation of non-food crops.
The issues with reuse of treated waste water are two fold:
If we raise the standards for the quality of reused water so that it can be used in more ways, some municipalities will release more waste water into rivers and streams instead of going to the expense of complying with the new standards.
If we allow more reuse at current standards, we risk greater exposure to the "metals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals" that Secondary treatment leaves behind.
I believe more has to be done to achieve greater reuse of waste water. I also believe that big government cannot simply raise the standards and mandate greater reuse without passing out some money to make it happen.
Many people complain about the constant rise in their property taxes. Many of those same people cheer when the Federal and/or State government pass laws that require county and local governments to do more.
I, for one, cannot believe we tolerate water treated to only the secondary level being released into the environment at all. Especially when the technology exists to take it a step further. There is an opportunity here for true leadership at the federal level to fund a massive works bill to raise water standards AND put people to work improving the treatment plans and distribution systems.
Imagine the water conservation that could be achieved with more advanced treatment. We could run secondary water mains that people could use to water their lawns, flush their toilets, and irrigate their crops. The technology exists, the need is clear and present, but municipalities cannot just have new standards mandated to them.