Aerial View of Water Plant

Turning Waste(water) Into a Resource

Wastewater is the next big thing. But how do you get constituents to use it?

For the first time in history, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to declare an official water shortage in 2021 for the Colorado River water and the seven states which rely on it, including Colorado.

This declaration, if it occurs, is based on projected water levels at Lake Mead falling below 1,075 feet for the first time in June 2021 and an agreement negotiated by the seven states that utilize the water. If the projections hold, the cuts resulting from a Level 1 shortage condition will be implemented in January 2022.

Colorado’s current drought is the second-worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years. Although unprecedented in recent history, the impacts of prolonged drought as well as the dry and warm conditions across the Colorado River Basin, propelled by climate change, made this reality inevitable.

In fact, by 2050, the Colorado River could lose roughly one-fourth of its water flow. In order to deal with this widespread change, the state will need to plan for the long-term regarding how the state acquires, uses, and preserves its water.

These plans include conservation, streamflow management, as well as placing more reliance on using wastewater as drinking water or for irrigation.

Meeting the Demand and Selling the Experience

According to the EPA, water reuse, or water reclamation, “reclaims water from a variety of sources and then treats and reuses it for beneficial purposes such as agriculture, irrigation, potable water supplies, groundwater replenishment, industrial processes, and environmental restoration.”

The goal of this type of process is to provide alternatives to existing water supplies, enhancing water security.

Reusing sewage is nothing new, and people have been utilizing it in a treated form for irrigation purposes for centuries.

Fifty years ago, the technology was developed to turn sewage back into drinking water. Now, more than four million Americans get some or all of their drinking water from treated sewage.

Today, the technology—from membrane filtration to ozone and advanced oxidation—has perfected turning sewage into potable water to the point that minerals need to be added back in to replicate the “taste” people are familiar with.

For many communities, the challenge lies in maintaining and growing public confidence in water and wastewater institutions, such as special districts.

Ways that districts can help with public perception include conducting extensive outreach programs to address community concerns around recycling projects.

Specifically, public facility tours and community meetings have shown to be effective in improving public trust and interest in water reuse, as has a commitment to transparency and competency in which water-quality data is not only public, but pushed out to constituents through communication channels such as social media.

In addition, good water supply and sanitation works best when communities are involved.

As people are willing to pay for water, and as demand continues to rise, raising awareness of the importance of water conservation is something that also falls to water, wastewater, reclamation, conservation, and other similar entities.

While also raising awareness, districts can incentivize economical water use. Many water providers currently provide rebates for consumers to upgrade to more efficient technology such as low-flush toilets and high-efficiency washing machines.

From Water to…Heat?

While water, wastewater, water reclamation districts, and the like are already stewards of the sewage-treatment process, advances in the field are making the process easier, more efficient, and better for the environment and the future.

Using bacteria, researchers at Washington University have created a new filter that treats wastewater while also generating electricity. The new system works as the bacteria produces an electric change as it breaks down organic material.

The hope with the new technologies is that the “waste” part of wastewater will no longer be seen as such. Wastewater treatment, when combined with drinking water systems, uses 3%-4% of all energy consumed in the U.S.

By investing in new technologies, wastewater treatment plants can offset their energy use and shrink their footprint.

The concept of harnessing energy from wastewater is nothing new.

Denver is already underway on a new project which is the largest sewer heat-recovery project in North America. In the next few years, a new 1 million square foot remodel of the National Western Complex will be heated and cooled entirely by heat from sewer pipes below the 250-acre site.

Inside a main sewer line, the contents remains 55 to 75 degrees year-round, regardless of the temperature outside. Currently, after sewage runs through a treatment plant and reaches its final destination, such as a river or tributary, it can cause thermal pollution and pose an environmental risk to plants and wildlife.

By utilizing the heat available in wastewater pipelines for heating and cooling urban environments, wastewater treatment plants can reduce this environmental risk while simultaneously reducing the greenhouse gas emissions for heating, when compared with natural gas or electric baseboard heating.

The city of Avon currently utilizes what is known as a “Community Heat Recovery System” to produce heat from its wastewater treatment facility to heat its recreation center pools, with the capacity to expand and provide heat to additional buildings in the town core.

It does so by capturing heat-energy before the water is discharged into the Eagle River by using a series of heat pumps and heat exchangers in a closed-loop system so wastewater remains in pipelines.

Keeping the Tap Running

Although turning wastewater into potable water is expensive, arid areas that are facing a drought may need to turn to this method in order to meet demand.

Currently, the Colorado River supplies 1 in 10 Americans with their drinking water and irrigates 5.5 million acres of land.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects that demand will surpass supply by 2040. With these stats, the unfolding crisis comes as no surprise—and neither should the fact that wastewater is being viewed as a potential solution.

By looking at internal treatment processes, planning for future technology and equipment upgrades, and working to meet future demand (while also managing current demand), water, wastewater, sanitation, reclamation, and irrigation districts are at the forefront of this looming issue—with the tools, personnel, and know-how to meet the challenges of the future.

Need help getting sewer backup messaging out to your homeowners? Our DRAIN FACTS brochure has all the details needed to help educate homeowners and reduce incidents.

To inquire about copies, email

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