Dirty Jobs in Government: Water and Sewer

All water is just the same H2O recycled over and over.

by / May 29, 2013

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Astronauts have been drinking recycled urine for some time, and according to Wired magazine, on the long trip to Mars, they’ll be shielded from radiation by astronaut poop. That, in microcosm, is what’s happening back here on Earth. 

According to the “One Water Vision,” all water is just the same H2O recycled over and over. Some of the water in your coffee, for example, might have been excreted by a Neanderthal, or been part of the iceberg that sank the Titanic — or both, although the chances of that seem fairly slim.

Following the Industrial Revolution, the human population spiked — from about 1 million to an estimated 7 billion in 2013, hammering freshwater supplies. The results? More waste entering the water supply, more incentive to recover potable water from that waste, and the discovery that pharmaceuticals and street drugs are entering the water supply. And if you think marijuana in the drinking water is “far out,” you could be part of the problem.

Some of this waste has bad effects, like death. Canadian researchers suspect that birth control pill estrogen in drinking water is causing a spike in prostate cancer deaths. Traditional water-treatment technology does little to remove illegal or pharmaceutical drugs that have been excreted or flushed, and thus “what goes around comes around.”

Global Water Senior Vice President Graham Symmonds suggests a “three-pipe” system, comprising a potable water pipe, a nonpotable water pipe for irrigation or industrial use, and a sewer pipe. The system reduces demand for potable water by 40 percent, he said. And while removing pharmaceuticals from water is expensive, only the potable system would need such treatment. “Your grass doesn’t care if there is aspirin in the water,” he said.

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), said Symmonds, can help struggling municipalities and utilities by letting customers monitor their consumption and reduce waste. AMI can also help recover “nonrevenue” water, he said, from missing or ineffective meters, leaks and errors. “You can find a lot of revenue by cleaning up your system.”

What about ocean water? Desalination is expensive compared to traditional water treatment. Texas, for example — which already desalinates brackish groundwater — estimates that desalinating sea water would cost $800-$1,400 per acre foot, with each acre foot being equivalent to 326,000 gallons or roughly the amount used by an average household in a year. 

As for recovering water from waste? “The technologies exist to produce high-quality water from sewage,” Symmonds said, “and the regulatory framework is under construction, but some places do it already.”

Luckily new ideas are flooding in for better desalination techniques, protecting fish from medication, extracting useful chemicals from sewage, and stopping the formation of hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous, explosive and smelly material that corrodes sewer pipes, costing the U.S. $14 billion annually. Sewage can even be used to generate electricity.

Read about more dirty jobs in government

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.