Georgia ReportNews

Conserve Water or We’ll Wind Up Drinking from the Toilet

This is what’s happening in California, as the state tries to cope with a record-breaking drought now in its fourth year. Some state officials are proposing that the Golden State implement a water-recycling policy that is known as “direct potable reuse.”

Direct potable reuse involves taking sewer water, treating it through a three-step process and then pumping it directly back into the water supply, so that it can be used for drinking. Critics of the concept refer to it somewhat distastefully as “toilet to tap.”

In California, we could be looking at the future of water supplies in Georgia, where there have been two serious droughts over the past 15 years. Readers may remember that the second drought was so prolonged, then-governor Sonny Perdue held a rally on the Capitol steps to pray for rain.

These droughts are a result of global warming, which means we will likely see more of them in the future. I don’t relish the thought of having reclaimed sewer water pour out of my tap during the next drought, but what’s the alternative?  

One step would be to enact a stronger package of conservation regulations, so that the water we do have can last longer. “Conservation” is a bad word with much of Georgia’s political leadership. If you talk about requiring the use of plumbing fixtures that are more water-efficient, they’ll complain about “burdensome” government regulations. The attitude of our elected leaders has been that it’s better to spend billions of dollars to impound reservoirs or inject water into underground aquifers than to encourage people to use less of it.

Here’s the dirty little secret: We do a good job of conserving water when we set our minds to it. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that during the period from 1980–2010, Georgia’s water use decreased by 30 percent, even though its population increased by more than 70 percent. The withdrawals from water sources dropped from 6.7 billion gallons per day to 4.7 billion gallons per day.

Part of that decrease resulted from people doing a better job of conserving water. Part of it happened because electric utilities shut down several coal-fired generation plants, which use large amounts of water, and replaced them with natural gas facilities that use less.

There are some simple measures that could keep that trend going.

Instead of spending tax dollars to fight an expensive water war with Florida and Alabama, Georgia could settle the litigation by lowering its demands for water from reservoirs and rivers. The money spent on legal fees could be used on programs to encourage more conservation. The person overseeing the federal case has warned Georgia’s lawyers they should think about this.

“We are talking a lot of money and a result you may not like,” special master Ralph Lancaster said recently. “I’m going to urge you to discuss a settlement seriously.”

Georgia Power should be commended for closing down so many of its coal-fired power plants, but another drain on water supplies is the operation of nuclear power plants.

Two nuclear reactors are being built at Plant Vogtle, but they are plagued by cost overruns and are 39 months behind schedule. The Public Service Commission could terminate the Vogtle project—which it has the authority to do—and instruct Georgia Power to build a gas-fired plant that uses less water.

All of these steps could feasibly be accomplished, although there would be tremendous political pressure brought to bear by the utilities and the business lobbyists.

On the other hand, if you would rather drink water that comes from a river than from a sewer line, you might want to think about taking these actions.