The green revolution has changed people’s behaviors, and given birth to innovations in technology and public policy that help us use less and reuse more.
Paper recycling programs started out as an outlandish idea.
Paper was cheap and plentiful. Why make the effort? Now, thanks to some truly resourceful thinkers, recycling paper and buying and selling recycled paper products is not only common place, it is demonstrating economic and environmental benefits on a scale that couldn’t have been imagined 20 years ago.
So what about water? People tend to look at water in Canada as cheap and plentiful too. And just as we used to use paper once and throw it away, we have a bias towards using water once. But that’s starting to change.
Traditionally, wastewater is treated for disposal and discharged into bodies of water such as rivers or oceans.
But utilizing reclaimed water – wastewater that has been treated for re-use in non-potable applications – has become common in the United States and around the world and is becoming more common in Canada.”
Reclaimed water is not suitable for human consumption even though it has been processed. The specific composition of reclaimed water varies according to the sources that generate it and the treatment processes used to process it.
Despite this, making reclaimed water available for specific, regulated uses can significantly ease the burden on drinking water supplies and provide many economic advantages.
As regulatory agencies and industries explore the use of reclaimed water in Canada, we can learn from the innovations in public policy, infrastructure design, and technology in place elsewhere.
Conservation Led to Innovation
In the southern United States, where drought and limited water supplies have forced a strong water conservation ethic, reclaimed water has been used to great effect to reduce the draw on the potable water supply.
The City of Austin’s Water Utility in Texas began looking into reclaimed water as a water conservation measure and now uses reclaimed water for street cleaning, irrigation, dust control and construction.
“The City was and is experiencing a drought, as well as water theft from fire hydrants.” says Cole O. Newton, P.E., LEED AP, Reclaimed Water Project Manager, Austin Water.
“Currently we are installing three permanent reclaimed bulk wwater filling stations on Austin Water’s reclaimed water system. We are expecting to see steady use on the systems.”
These reclaimed bulk water filling stations, manufactured in Alberta by Flowpoint Environmental Systems, allow for secure access to bulk reclaimed water.
Because the bulk water filling stations are significantly easier to use than breaking open a fire hydrant, water haulers are happy to use them.
The truck fill stations benefit the city, too, as they allow automatic billing, which many municipalities see as a simple cost recovery solution to making the initial infrastructure investment.
The City of Austin is keenly aware that as construction and density go up, so too will the need for water.
In addition to installing the reclaimed bulk water truck fill stations, they are actively educating the public so that more companies and individuals learn about the potential uses of reclaimed water and understand how to use the stations.
“We expect to see enough use and demand to install an additional nine stations throughout the City,” says Newton.
Their ultimate goal is to divert demand for water from the potable water system to the reclaimed water system whenever possible.
Setting policy and implementing systems to ensure safe use of reclaimed water is critical for public health, but where these regulations are in place communities’ benefit.
In jurisdictions across North America reclaimed water is being used in refineries, parks, cooling systems, golf courses, mining operations, and even in homes.
Some municipalities are also experimenting with groundwater recharge programs, allowing reclaimed water to be further treated by natural processes to replenish the water table.
Cue the purple revolution
Throughout North America, pipes carrying reclaimed water are colored purple. This color system ensures that potable dispensing points are not accidentally connected to a reclaimed water supply, and purple pipes also make it obvious to water haulers and all users that the water is not for human consumption.
Public policy in Canada is catching up, and regulations are being developed to clearly outline allowable uses of reclaimed water.
Commonly, regulatory agencies in the US, including the agencies in Austin, Texas, classify reclaimed water according to its degree of treatment, and approve its use in applications based on its quality.
British Columbia has taken a similar position, making provisions for both indoor and outdoor use of reclaimed water based on water quality.
Meanwhile, in Alberta, reclaimed water is being used in industrial applications, such as the Edmonton Suncor refinery, which draws the treated wastewater from the Gold Bar Waste water Treatment Plant.
And while reclaimed water is also seeing use in irrigation applications in the province, Alberta Municipal Affairs has not yet approved its use for indoor applications such as toilet flushing, but is developing relevant policies to establish guidelines for its safe use.
Clearly there is a strong business and environmental case to be made for making better use of our water supply.
Innovations in technology, including the secure bulk water dispensing stations used in Austin are already available.
The more we take advantage of these innovations, the more we will come to understand the untapped potential of reclaimed water systems in both our industry and our communities.