The scarcity of available drinking (potable) water has forced water agencies to look for innovated ways of finding new sources of drinking water for its customers. Because new water can’t be created, the concept of using recycled water is quickly becoming more common place. The California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative notes that recycled water projects have more than doubled since 1987 and continues to follow an upward trend. Identified and delivered by purple pipes, recycled water is often labeled with warnings of, “Do Not Drink” and “Non-Potable Water.” But if recycled water isn’t supposed to be for drinking, then how can recycled water be a source of clean drinking water?
Let’s start with the question of, “What exactly is recycled water and what purpose does it serve?” The answer comes from years of innovative thinking in hopes to find solutions for water-stressed regions. The California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) defines recycled water as “municipal wastewater which, as a result of specified treatment, is suitable for a beneficial use.” Essentially, wastewater enters a treatment process that allows for it to be used again without going through the natural water cycle. Therefore, the volume of the treated wastewater is more predictable and available during a more immediate timeframe. According to CASA recycled water is, “One of the only reliable, sustainable and drought-proof sources of new water to meet California’s needs.” Recycled water essentially creates a new source of water. Can this water be used for drinking?
Implementing recycled water systems in service areas has had many challenges, including the public perceptions of its uses in relation to drinking water. One negative perception includes the idea that customers would be drinking recycled wastewater from their faucets. Although recycled water is used to benefit the population for outdoor irrigation uses, regulations in California do not permit direct consumption for potable use This means we can’t drink recycled water right after it leaves the treatment plant. More simply put, it cannot be used to for drinking, cooking, or showering purposes. Instead, it is currently approved for ‘non-potable’ uses, non-drinking/ human uses. But even for these uses, a high degree of treatment is conducted by local wastewater treatment agencies that must meet accepted state and federal water quality standards before delivery and use of recycled water.
The difference between potable and non-potable water is potable water has been designated for safe direct consumption by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among other agencies and requirements. However, the specifications do not exclude non-potable water (not intended for drinking) from serving water districts and its consumers in a positive manner. Instead, recycled water not intended for direct consumption can be used for “irrigation, such as turf and landscaping, agricultural uses, dust control and industrial cooling.” Crops using recycled water provide the much needed water resources to help harvests grow. Many of those crops are then used at some point for either animal or human consumptions, which are a byproduct of recycled waters use.
Another use of recycled water is to recharge groundwater aquifers and to prevent seawater intrusion into underground drinking supplies. Treatment levels of the recycled water vary from primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment methods. Recycled water that is used to supplement or recharge groundwater aquifers must employ greater levels of treatment to ensure its quality and safety. The indirect potable reuse of wastewater isn’t directly consumed by people. Instead, it is pumped to groundwater basins for recharge where it passes through yet another natural filtering process of treatment. That water will eventually make it’s way to wells used to deliver water for consumption. According to the California State Water Board, “regulations specify the percentage of recycled water that can be added, how long it must reside in a basin and the distance from adjoining potable well supplies before it can be merged with other natural groundwater sources used for drinking water.” Due to the nature of the process, this type of use of recycled water is considered indirect water consumption.
A large focus of many Southern California water agencies is to increase local water supply and to decrease its reliance on imported sources. Pursing these projects helps alleviate some of the challenges that California has experienced over the last years, The California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative outlines the benefits as:
- Reducing water pollutions
- Augmenting water supply
- Supporting healthy ecosystems; and
- Reducing water energy requirements and costs
Innovative solutions, such as using recycled water for indirect consumption, will continue to strengthen California’s water districts ability to deliver consistent, reliable, and safe water for its consumers.
Most people in California turn their faucet on and use water for drinking, washing, cooking, and other activities with confidence that the water they are using is safe. The institutions that provide the ever-needed resource at any time of the day are water agencies, and they serve the public daily through a wide variety of important roles. One of the primary roles of a water agency is to deliver high quality water with reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Agencies employ water quality technicians and scientists that do the work to deliver dependable water on a consistent basis. Careers in water treatment and operations include inspecting water samples, analyzing findings, helping set standards for water integrity, as well as reliable delivery of water to their customers. Individuals who work at a water treatment plant operate and manage the distribution of water to homes and businesses. Operations staff also work in the field collecting water quality samples and working with labs to test for water quality. Both play a direct role in maintaining the vitality of their communities and environments by providing services that benefit public health.
Careers in water treatment and operations don’t just happen over night. Ernie Montelongo, Chief Plant Operator for West Valley Water District, has served in the water industry for over 34 years. He started his career as an entry-level water meter reader and worked his way up to play an integral role in water quality. Ernie is a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual, having worked in various roles from a maintenance employee to pump operator and now water treatment. He takes his job with serious regard and shares, “We are the first line of defense to protecting the people we serve.” Regarding water treatment as a first line of defense for the community is no exaggeration; after all, water can only sustain its surroundings if its useable.
Ernie has been a long-time mentor and leader in water quality for the Inland Empire. He encourages others to follow in his footsteps to pursue fulfilling careers in water treatment and operations. As the supervisor / chief operator for West Valley Water District’s water treatment facility, he oversees water quality testing on a daily basis among other operations. He and his team personally test for constituents (contaminants) in drinking water; these tests are called “grab samples.” Grab samples include testing for maximum contaminant levels, pH and total dissolved solids. At the end of every week, additional samples are sent to a nearby lab for testing. “Combined we conduct over 200 water quality tests on a weekly basis,” continues Ernie. “Every water quality test result is sent to the California Department of Drinking Water for reporting purposes.” This process gives the public an added assurance that the District takes accountability, and pride, in the water it serves.
Next time you turn your water faucet on, remember that there is a team of individuals working diligently around the clock to ensure that you and your family can drink, cook, and use the resource with a peace of mind.
Water quality and distribution are essential elements of the water industry that will continue to require dedicated professionals. For individuals considering technical and operational careers in water, the California State Water Resources Control Board provides information on certification programs to become a water treatment and distribution system operator.
The tap water at most California’s schools is considered safe while officials are working to ensure that older water systems are thoroughly tested.
A grueling game of tether ball. A competitive kickball session. Or maybe just one of those typical hot California fall days. Whether they’re filling their reusable bottles or slurping it straight from the fountain, water is a necessity for the school day. And with kids just heading back to the classroom, the last thing parents want to worry about is the safety of school water.
Mom and Dad might sleep a little easier now knowing that any public K-12 school built before 2010 will be required to test lead levels in all school drinking water sources by July 2019. But what about newer schools? Should we be concerned with those too? The mandate doesn’t include any site built after the 2010 cutoff, but a new state directive gives those officials the option to request testing.
Water: California style
Few people think of tap water without remembering the Flint, Michigan lead poisoning crisis of 2014. The contamination occurred when the city, looking to save money on utilities, began sourcing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron and the Detroit River. The water was not properly treated and lead from old pipes leached into the supply, poisoning the tap for more than 100,000 residents.
Thankfully, the Golden State’s water supply rarely contains lead. Yet there are some older buildings, homes and schools with pipes, fixtures, solder or other infrastructure that still contain lead. And even if the water is all derived from the same source, the plumbing fixtures that it runs through could contain lead and possibly cause contamination.
In response to this potential health hazard, the State’s Division of Drinking Water (DDW) and the California Department of Education have joined forces to begin testing public school’s water supply.
In 2017, the DDW amended the permits of at least 1,200 community water systems to enable school districts to receive assistance from their public water utility. The local water system must sample the school’s supply within 90 days of the request and will collect and analyze up to five water samples. If a high lead level is discovered, the school will receive support to deal with the issue and set up an action plan. Legislators went a step further with the passage of Assembly Bill 746, the bill requiring older schools to test lead levels by July 2019.
Schools are already sampling
Since California’s infrastructure tends to sit on the newer side, most of the state’s water supply is safe, yet there have been some incidents. In 2017, high levels of lead, copper and bacteria were discovered at two elementary schools and one middle school in the San Diego County-based San Ysidro School District. The issue was unearthed when discolored water began flowing from faucets during a routine pressure check. The schools immediately shut off all water and had the supply analyzed. Students were instructed to only drink bottled water supplied by the district and continued to do so until the end of the year.
Testing revealed that the water source wasn’t the issue, but instead old faucets were leaking lead into the tap water. The same issue occurred up in Sacramento in 2015 when Folsom Cordova Unified School District found elevated levels of lead in one of its schools that serves preschoolers and special needs students. Some of the District’s schools were built in the 1960s and have old piping. The District began testing all its facilities and is continuing to do so.
The serious health consequences of lead poisoning
Even at what is considered low levels, lead can cause a range of health issues including: learning disabilities, developmental delays, weight loss, abdominal pain and behavioral issues. The chemical can build up for months or years and is particularly dangerous in children younger than 6 since they are still developing. Although the requirement is only for schools eight years or older, many institutions that don’t fall under that umbrella are already testing. And the DDW encourages all public schools to take advantage of the program to ensure that their drinking water is safe.
If the lead in the tap water exceeds 15 parts per billion, then the school must conduct further testing to ensure that it’s safe for students to drink. Of the state’s nearly 13,000 public and private schools, a total of 3,444 public and 220 private institutions have tested the lead levels in their drinking water. A total of 16,781 sites reported lead levels of less than 15 parts per billion, 683 were in the middle range with levels between 5 parts per billion and 15 parts per billion, while 186 sites reported levels exceeding the regulatory cut-off.
Water agencies work diligently to ensure that tap water is safe for the public to consume anywhere, including schools. Regular tap water testing and monitoring is required to meet and exceed State and Federal water quality standards. The State Water Resources Control Board has created an interactive map for residents to check on the lead levels or current status of local schools. If you have concerns about the tap water at your child’s school, contact your district to find out more.
Recent reports of Trichloroethylene in public water systems have been surfacing and gaining media attention. The Environmental Working Group, (EWG) a research non-profit agency, released an analysis of tests from public utilities nationwide. The analysis stated that approximately 14 million people are impacted by the carcinogenic pollutant, also known as TCE. They also conclude that a person drinking water at or below the updated guidance value, whether exposed briefly, occasionally, or daily for a lifetime would have little or no risk of health effects. Moreover, the trend for TCE-use has been experiencing a consistent decline in usage and the exposure appears to be declining in the general population. Consumers should research the consumer confidence report for their specific water agency to obtain accurate information on their water quality and not rely solely on the information provided on the analysis provided by the EWC.
What is Trichloroethylene?
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Trichloroethylene is a colorless volatile liquid that is produced in large volumes for commercial use. It is used to make other chemicals and as a solvent that is found in processes from dry cleaning, auto maintenance, aerosol cleaning products, and a variety of other commercial industries. The Institute goes on to explain that TCE can be released into the water, air, and soil in the area where it is handled and stored. TCE can become problematic if people experience chronic exposure or consumption since it has been recently categorized as a carcinogenic. According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for determining what level of contaminants, such as Trichloroethylene, in drinking water is safe for human consumption based on extensive testing, monitoring and research. The EPA creates enforceable drinking water standards for maximum contaminant levels (MCL). The MCL is the maximum allowable contaminant concentration, which a public water system can deliver to a customer. The current maximum contaminant level (MCL) for Trichloroethylene is 5µg/L (5 ppb).
What are public health goals?
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, sets public health goals. These goals are based on concentrations that pose no significant health risks if consumed for an entire lifetime. These public health goals are utilized by public water agencies to provide customers with information about drinking water contaminants in their annual consumer confidence report. Public health goals are not regulatory standards, nor are they intended to be. They are a guideline for the State Water Resources Control Board when determining the appropriate MCL for a contaminant. To find out more information from your specific water agency on levels of TCE, visit their website and evaluate the consumer confidence report, also known as water quality report.
Where to find additional information on Trichloroethylene:
Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate the water poses a health risk. More information about contaminants and potential health effects can be obtained by calling the U.S. EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791 or visit the EPA’s web site at www.epa.gov. Trace chemicals are measured in parts per million (ppm), which is the same as milligrams per liter (mg/L). Some constituents are measured in parts per billion (ppb). Some people may be more vulnerable to contaminants in drinking water than the general population. Those who may be particularly at risk include cancer patients, organ transplant recipients, people with HIV-AIDS or other immune system disorders, as well as some elderly individuals and infants. These people should seek advice about drinking water from their health care providers.
Innovative technology has helped improve many aspects in our quality of life and medical advancements are no exception. Medicine plays an integral role in people’s daily life; whether taken for a one-time ailment or as a daily medication, it has truly evolved and can help maintain healthy communities. But what happens when medications need to be disposed of?
It is important that we safeguard our natural resources from unwanted materials and this includes medicine. The Federal Drug Administration advises, “When your medicines are no longer needed, they should be disposed of promptly. Consumers and caregivers should remove expired, unwanted, or unused medicines from their home as quickly as possible to help reduce the chance that others accidentally take or intentionally misuse the unneeded medicine, and to help reduce drugs from entering the environment.” Essentially, proper disposal of medication has various benefits, including keeping potentially strong medicine out of the hands of children and those who may abuse it, and to minimize any environmental impacts, including impacts on our watersheds.
Local organizations, such as Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), are helping customers and Riverside County residents properly dispose of unwanted medicines. “EMWD’s SewerSmart Healthy Sewers campaign educates on proper medication disposal in order to reduce the impacts of unwanted medications in local wastewater. Toilets are not trashcans,” shares Roxanne Rountree, Senior Public Affairs Officer at EMWD. “We provide free medication disposal bags. Simply place the medications in the bags, add water and throw away in a trashcan. Historically, the District has promoted disposing medications by mixing it with undesirable substances, such as kitty litter or coffee grounds, and discarding it in the household trash. This option provides convenient onsite disposal that ultimately ends up in a lined landfill. However, some consumers prefer off-site disposal, citing environmental concerns and the possibility of disposed medications ending up in the wrong hands,”
EMWD, like many of SAWPA’s partners regard what they call highly reliable water, recycled water and wastewater service as their top priority and do so by protecting the health and safety of the community and the environment, as well as meet all regulatory requirements.
How much of a concern is it when medicine enters the environment and what kind of impact does it have on our watershed?
This is a multifaceted answer that has been the central topic in many discussions and studies throughout the years. The World Health Organization released a technical report that states, “Pharmaceuticals are normally governed by stringent regulatory processes and require rigorous preclinical and clinical studies to assess their efficacy and safety before commercialization. Therefore, pharmaceuticals are generally better characterized than other environmental contaminants.” However, the Santa Ana River Watershed still relies heavily on its local communities and partners to engage in safe disposal of unwanted medications, trash, and other forms of debris to maintain the vitality of the habitat and the integrity of the resource.
Some of the pharmaceutical contaminants in our environment do not come directly from the actual medication being disposed of in our waterways or down our toilets and sinks. In fact, the World Health Organization established “that raw sewage and wastewater effluents are a…source of pharmaceuticals found in surface waters,” and, the Federal Drug Administration reinforces the notion that the “majority of medicines found in water are a result of the body’s natural routes of drug elimination (in urine or feces).” The pharmaceutical contaminants make their way into our water supply via our natural sewer and water cycle. Nevertheless, almost every individual person can have a direct and positive impact on the watershed by following proper pharmaceutical disposal of medication they no longer need. The individual and community level preventative actions that people take help sustain a healthy and reliable source of water. They also support the habitation and give people ease of mind when participating in recreational activities along watershed.
How do we know that our tap water quality still maintains its integrity? The World Health Organization goes on to explain, “Even though wastewater and drinking-water treatment processes are not designed specifically to remove pharmaceuticals, they may do so to varying degrees. Pharmaceuticals are not “unusual” chemicals; their removal efficiencies during wastewater and drinking-water treatment are dependent on their physical and chemical properties. In cases where regulations require controls to mitigate risks from exposure to pesticides, treatment barriers may already be optimized to remove pharmaceuticals. Conventional wastewater treatment facilities generally have activated sludge processes or other forms of biological treatment such as biofiltration. These processes have demonstrated varying removal rates for pharmaceuticals, ranging from less than 20% to greater than 90%.”
The FDA released a statement saying that “To date, scientists have found no evidence of harmful effects to human health from medicines in the environment. In addition, to better understand the human health and ecological risks from medicines in our water, the FDA works with other agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).” Governing agencies are constantly searching for improvements in treatment processes to uphold water quality standards and protect our watersheds. To reduce overall medicine levels in our waters, FDA recommends that if readily available, consumers first consider disposing of these drugs as quickly as possible through programs. Available options include:
- Using disposal events at your local pharmacy to return unused medication
- Disposing of medicines in household trash in the following steps
- Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds;
- Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag;
- Throw the container in your household trash; and
- By being cognizant of what we are disposing of in our waterways
EMWD has partnered with other public agencies to provide a myriad of options, including local events, to dispose of pharmaceutical medication including:
- Department of Justice / Drug Enforcement Administration’s “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day” events
- Riverside County Department of Waste Resources’ “Household Hazardous Waste Collection” events for non-controlled substances
- EMWD webpage link to a Drug Take Back location/event map
- Medicine Disposal System biodegradable pouch giveaways at local community events. Customers can also pick up a pouch at the district’s headquarters in Perris.
We shouldn’t contaminate our waters by pouring fat, grease, or oil down our pipes. Adopting the same mentality when it comes to pharmaceuticals can only help maintain the liveliness of our water supply and watershed, and promote overall public health.