Urinating in the water we drink

Theres' an interesting exploration of alternatives to desalinated water in last week's GLW.

In it Pip Hinman writes:
"Water recycling has proven effective in other parts of the world. In California, for example, recycling was chosen over desalination. In Singapore, the government scrapped plans to build six desalination plants to meet the city-state's water needs, building only one after introducing recycled water.

"Sara Phillips reported in Cosmos magazine last June reported that Sydney, with 4 million people, gets, on average, 1217 mm of rain a year, Brisbane gets 1146 mm and Perth 773 mm. Compare this to London — city of 7.3 million — which gets 611 mm and has not had water restrictions for 15 years because it recycles its water. "
I have a few issues with such an outlook . While I realize that downstream regional centres drink upstream's pee --such as in the Murray Darling Basin -- Pip's article doesn't address the reason why people would voluntarily do so.

As it is, Sydney's water supply is so economically rationalised & corporatised that a major Giardia lambliaoutbreak occurred there in the mid nineties. So why would anyone "trust" a Labor state government to clean up water that is pumped from the local sewerage plant?

The problem you see is that dangers to drinking humans come from other defecating humans and in a water catchment area human sewerage is the main contaminant you want to lock out of the system. Animal waste is all very secondary in way of being a fomite for disease.

Recycling sewerage completely ignores that separation and that core principle. Call me an old softy but when the Dr John Snow turned off the Broad Street communal pump in 1854 in inner city London to stop a cholera outbreak , he established a core principle of water management: don't mix your poo or your chemicals or your heavy metals with what you put in your month.

There is nothing wrong with recycling in way of forcing companies or farms to do that in their productive processes or any other closed system we can put into effect. The problem occurs when water you drink comes from the same source.

Here in Queensland the option being pushed is to recycle by initially topping up local volumes by 10% that way. But while this is a stop gap measure,state premier Peter Beattie has made it clear that recycling water for drinking purposes will be standard there after.

As it is, Brisbane water is heavily chlorinated because of the chances of water born disease so I have to wonder what sort of 'fix' is supposed to work under a recycling regime. Would I be better off drinking from the local swimming pool?

Essentially, from what I know about hydrology the only sure fire way to purify water is to evaporate and then condense it.No osmotic process of filtering is going to rid contaminated water of all its chemical compounds even if it does kill off bugs and spores.

We've all read Silent Spring haven't we? We know about the food chain and the way chemicals are concentrated at the top feeder --and human -- hierarchies? (Look at the heavy metal concentration in rays and sharks). So how can you oppose exotic chemicals in food or irradiated food and give the nod to recycled drinking water?

So I don't think it is an option as clear cut as Pip makes it out to be.

But I take the point: if it's between desalination or new dams or recycling I can defer to the big picture. But what's missing from this debate is a clear and correct water inventory... without that we play into these state governments hands and argue blind.

For instance, it is important to asses how much of the water we use is drunk and how much is used for other purposes. Let's say we drink or cook or bathe in maybe 10-15% of the total volume that is piped through the urban area. Should we then hold the rest hostage to that small proportion we use for hydration?

I also need to point out that given a choice, a democratic choice, the people of Toowoomba didn't buy into recycled water. So recycling may be all very well to propose but you will probably have to impose it on populations who are prey to the yuk! factor.

And that has to be considered under any optional water plan -- the
democratic element.

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