For those of us in the membrane industry, responding to the cocktail party question of “what do you do?” has always been a conversation killer. Water isn’t particularly glamorous and trying to engage someone in the technology of water treatment is challenging at best. But times are changing and now when I tell people what I do, I actually get an earnest follow up question; “are they planning on making us drink toilet water?” I also laugh when I hear the predictable statement that comes next, “I’d never drink recycled water.” This line gives me an opportunity to slay the dreaded “Toilet to Tap” dragon and engage in a meaningful discussion around direct and indirect water reuse.
I usually start by pointing out that by some estimates, the water flowing down the Mississippi river is extracted and used seven times before it ever reaches its end point at the Gulf of Mexico. Wastewaters are discharged into rivers around the world that then become sources of drinking water.
Membrane technology allows us to use reclaimed water to irrigate golf courses and community parks, saving precious potable water for drinking. Some marvel at the “new advancements in technology” without realizing that membranes were commercialized almost 50 years ago when they were used to reclaim water and restore local water tables.
Because I’m based in San Diego County, I’m often asked about the new seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad, California and its benefit to the average San Diegan. The first point I usually make is that the city of San Diego resides at the tail end of a water distribution pipeline that is downstream of our much larger neighbor, Los Angeles. If a major earthquake were to hit our region, how long do you think it would take for San Diego to receive its allocation of imported water? What happens if the distribution canals, pumps, and pipelines are destroyed or damaged and need to be repaired or replaced? The Carlsbad desalination facility is a step in the right direction to reduce our dependency on this aging pipeline. When it goes live, the facility will provide an estimated 10% of San Diego County’s daily potable water requirement. While desalination alone is not the complete solution, its an important contribution to the overall water technology program necessary to meet the needs of San Diego County.
Water conservation, wastewater reuse, groundwater recharge, increased storage capacity, and water desalination will all help solve the challenges we face in arid parts of the world. But, better overall water management and public outreach are critical to the future of water infrastructure. Public outreach helps encourage discussions that are free from political agendas and ensures that everyone has accurate information to make intelligent and informed decisions about the future of water. It also makes answering the question of what I do for a living a little bit more exciting. So, fellow water folks, on your next flight or at your next dinner party, don’t be shy……take advantage of this unique time when everyone is interested in water and speak up!