Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Drinking from the toilet

Mark Hertsgaard has a fantastic story in Mother Jones about the Seattle area's preparations for the inevitability of climate change. If only the federal government were as willing to look long-term as Ron Sims, the King County chief executive. However, I want to focus on one aspect of the article:

There will be much less water available as climate change intensifies, and as Sims saw it, the task of government was to prepare people and institutions to live with less water. "People didn't want to believe there were going to be water shortages," he recalled. "After all, this is a place where it always rains. But I said, 'This is what the science says. We have to respect it.' The reason we have so many ecological problems today is because we didn't listen to science."
The morning we met, Sims took me to the site of one of the toughest fights in that battle, the Brightwater wastewater facility. The idea behind recycled water is simple: Instead of using pure water for all human purposes, why not substitute recycled water for watering golf courses, irrigating landscapes, and supplying factories? The Brightwater facility would take in wastewater, run it through filters to remove contaminants, then pump it out for delivery to non-household customers. In effect, using reclaimed water would allow the county to use the same volume of water twice.

It is unbelievable to me that this is not already being done on a larger scale. Water is already a scarce resource in some parts of the country and the world, and that situation promises only to get worse. Constantly dumping mostly-clean water into the oceans or otherwise discarding it seems like a massive waste. There certainly is a "yuck" factor, but nobody would know the difference if they weren't aware of it ahead of time. The compromise Sims has spearheaded seems like a good start. Is there any reason treated bathwater can't be used to water a golf course?

It's becoming clearer by the day that the world is not going to meaningfully curb carbon emissions in the near future. Indeed, it seems as though it may be too late anyway. So while climate hawks should not give up on that fight, it makes sense to start preparing for a world of higher temperatures. Water is going to be central to any sort of planning, and it makes sense to get an early start.

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