Water, Water Everywhere Й But Less Of It Every Day

“It is commonly assumed that the world’s water supply is huge and infinite. This assumption is false. In fact, of all the water on Earth, only 2.5 percent is fresh water, and available freshwater represents less than half of 1 percent of the world's total water stock. The rest is seawater, or inaccessible in ice caps, ground water and soil. This supply is finite.”

--from The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply, A Special Report issued by the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), by Maude Barlow .

Wars of the future, some analysts say, will be fought over water, not oil. Even now, however, many parks and recreation professionals--especially in the Southeast and Northwest--are battling drought conditions, in some cases, of epic proportion. Huge capital investments in sports fields and landscapes are in jeopardy of being lost. Entire youth and adult athletic programs could be suspended due to unsafe field conditions. Parks could become barren and deserted because water and flora have dried up.

Many of these professionals are looking for alternate sources of water to irrigate sports fields and/or landscaped park areas and possibly perform other maintenance functions, such as washing vehicles. Urban reuse water, (a.k.a., reclaimed water in some references), is one of the sources that deserves serious consideration.

Nowhere in the United States is the subject of alternate water sources more vital right now than in the Southeast, an area experiencing drought conditions that most people have never seen in their lifetimes. More than a quarter of the Southeast is baking in an "exceptional" drought--the National Weather Service's worst drought category. With water levels low and no serious rain in sight, many residents are under conservation orders--such as a ban on all outdoor watering. More stringent water conservation measures are on the horizon if relief doesn’t come soon. Many large areas in the northwest and southwest United States are under “extreme” drought conditions, which the second worst. In this environment, a closer look at the viability of reuse water is clearly warranted.

Reuse Vs. Effluent And Gray Water

Urban Reuse Water is domestic wastewater that has received treatment at or beyond standards established by state and/or federal regulatory agencies, making it suitable for use in areas of unrestricted public access. People often confuse reuse water with “gray water” or “effluent.” Professionals in the water industry are quick to point out that they aren’t the same thing.

Gray water is a term given to wastewater originating from households with the exception of toilet wastes. These wastewaters originate primarily from sinks, dishwashers and washing machines. Effluent is the discharge from wastewater treatment plants after receiving treatment to meet state and/or federal mandated standards. Urban reuse water is treated beyond those limits.

Peachtree City, Ga., 37 miles southwest of Atlanta, is smack in the middle of the exceptional drought area. Georgia’s governor placed a total ban on outdoor watering in October. He has since asked that residents and businesses attempt to cut their daily water usage by 10 percent. That’s a request, not an official order … yet.

City parks and recreation officials have been looking at reuse water for several years now, but have chosen not to pursue it due to infrastructure costs and public perception. Even though Georgia has been in some level of drought conditions for several years, it has never been extreme enough to drive a decision, until now.

“We believe that the extreme drought conditions justify a serious look at how urban reuse water can help save our investment in sports fields and keep them open for play even in the middle of a severe drought,” said Scott Christopher, Recreation Facilities Manager in Peachtree City. Reuse water is being considered for the city’s two largest active sports complexes with a total of eight soccer fields, nine baseball fields and seven softball fields.

The first hurdle to negotiate is public perception. Recreation department staff knew from experience that their public was concerned not only with providing physically safe and attractive fields but also a safe environment for their children.

“We want to ensure that the citizens and their children who use these fields fully understand what we’re doing and why,” said Christopher. “We want them to know what, if any, risks there are and also the risks if we don’t use this water. If the irrigation ban continues, the fields will deteriorate and we could have to close down seasons due to unsafe playing surfaces. We want to address their concerns up front, before we do anything.”

Assessing The Situation

The recreation staff used the Recreation Commission as the medium through which to initially communicate with the public on this topic. A public workshop was scheduled during the commission’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting on October 15. The workshop was publicized in local newspapers and on the city’s Web site, and the public was invited to attend. In addition, the recreation staff contacted youth associations who use the fields being considered for this water and invited their representatives. The recreation department called in two experts on the subject to participate in the workshop. Susan Lee represented the Peachtree City Water and Sewer Authority (WASA). As WASA’s operations division manager, she is responsible for production and distribution of urban reuse water. She presented a briefing on what reuse water is, and what it isn’t, as well as describing the process to produce it.

WASA is a separate entity from city government, although it is officially and financially a component unit. WASA maintains two wastewater treatment plants that process sewer water for the city of 35,000. One of those plants--the Line Creek Plant--was upgraded in 2004 to produce urban reuse water. A local nearby golf course has been irrigated since 2005 with that reuse water with no negative feedback.

Her list of what reuse water is included:

· High-quality, treated effluent from a wastewater treatment plant

· More reliable--both quantity and quality--than streams

· Less expensive than potable water

· In high demand in more water challenged regions

· A sustainable resource

As for what reuse water is not, she listed:

· Environmentally imposing

· Does not deplete limited natural resources

· “Grey water” or partially treated wastewater

· As expensive as potable water

· Subject to watering bans & drought conditions

· Widely available in Peachtree City--YET

Differing Opinions

Lee explained that upgrades to bring the Line Creek plant to reuse standards included adding state-of-the-art filtration, UV disinfection with triple redundancy to replace the old chlorine system, installation of an in-line turbidity and recording device, construction of a lined pond for reuse water storage and addition of an alarm system to shut the system down if problems occurred.

To address the question of how safe reuse water is for sports field irrigation, Lee quoted a 2005 study by the WaterReuse Foundation, entitled “Irrigation of Parks, Playgrounds and Schoolyards with Reclaimed Water: Extent and Safety.”

In part, the study stated, “…the irrigation of parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, and schoolyards with highly treated and disinfected reclaimed water is safe and does not present any known health risk to children or others who frequent those sites that are measurably different than risks associated with irrigation using potable water.”

The publication further states that “…secondary treatment, filtration and disinfection effectively eliminates pathogenic bacteria and helminths, and reduces enteric viruses to low or immeasurable levels. UV effectively inactivates bacteria, most viruses, and parasites…”

One meeting attendee, a retired biologist and local environmental watchdog, said his research indicated that there was not a totally effective means to ensure 100 percent destruction of viruses from waste water.

He indicated that much of his research had been online. He quoted one source as saying there would be very little removal of viruses through the reuse purification process.

Curtis Boswell, the other panelist, disagreed with that. Boswell is Georgia’s reuse water coordinator at the State Environmental Protection Division. He oversees all applications of reuse water in the state.

“That hasn’t been my experience in the research I’ve studied or in the cases I’ve been involved with,” Boswell told the audience. He went on to cite the eight pages of references in the 2005 WaterReuse Foundation’s publication that Lee had earlier mentioned.

“These are current studies by people from academia, the water reuse industry and the government,” he said. “None of them report any known illnesses that directly correlate with applications of reuse water.”

The biologist countered with an opinion that there were no statistics because it is difficult to associate illness with specific exposure of this type. He pointed out that often the incident of exposure might be so removed from an illness that it isn’t even associated with it. And if it is, there is no way to effectively determine the cause.

Boswell also referenced a 2004 United States EPA publication called “Guidelines for Water Reuse.” The guide’s introduction states that many communities in the United States and abroad are turning to water reclamation to help meet growing demands on available water resources. This 450-page document provides a comprehensive guide on all issues surrounding reuse water. It cites examples of use from places as close to home as Florida, New York, Texas and California to dozens of overseas sites.

The guide provides details on recreational applications of reuse water ranging from landscaping to water-based activities, such as fishing, boating and swimming. The guide states, “As with any form of reuse, the development of recreational and environmental water reuse projects will be a function of a water demand coupled with a cost-effective source of suitable quality reclaimed water.”

The term “quality reuse water” is one that can have different meanings, depending on who is using it. According to Lee, WASA uses three primary indicators to judge the quality of reuse water--total suspended solids, turbidity and fecal coliform.

The Numbers Game

The state requirements for reuse water call for 5 milligrams of total suspended solids per liter; a turbidity reading of 3 NTU (a measurement scale) and a fecal coliform reading of 23 cfu (colony forming units)/100 milliliters. In comparison, the creek from which water is now pumped to irrigate fields in Peachtree City had a 2006 suspended solids reading of 10mg/L; a turbidity reading of 16 NTU and a fecal coliform reading of 154 cfu. For the same time period, the reuse water being produced by WASA had total suspended solids at 3 mg/L; a turbidity of 1.6 NTU and fecal coliform at 6 cfu.

Indeed, by those common measures the reuse water was at a higher quality level than the water coming from the creek that has been used for nearly 15 years to irrigate the fields.

The biologist at the meeting had good things to say about the process that WASA has in place, but still contended that there needs to be more done to reduce the risk.

He indicated that there are ways to construct a system of water quality wetland areas where the treated water could be allowed to slowly percolate a minimum number of days to kill viruses. Even that, he said, would not assure a 100 percent product.

In the end, it comes down to risk management. Does the benefit outweigh the risk? Is it better to let fields expire because of a minimal risk that someone could be affected by some active or inert component of the reuse water? Should seasons be cancelled until the rains come? Is this risk any greater than risks people take every day driving a car, flying on an airplane or walking across a busy street?

At press time, this issue was still in the discussion phase in Peachtree City. Options were being studied and discussed at open public meetings. The stage was being set to bring the idea to City Council for consideration and potential funding of infrastructure construction.

The future of this option in Peachtree City is not known at this time, but one thing is certain--if the drought and watering ban continues, and worsens, and no alternate source of irrigation is implemented, come springtime there will be some difficult decisions to be made.

Editor’s Note: The author will continue to report progress on this item as it develops.

Randy Gaddo has for 10 years been the Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation and library) in Peachtree City, Ga. He and his staff work with 11 different youth sports associations and three special-interest associations. Prior to that, he was a U.S. Marine Corps public affairs officer for 20 years. As par t of his duties, he was a community relations liaison with various volunteer groups in the cities surrounding bases where he was stationed. He just completed work for a master’s degree in Public Administration, with much formal education on working with volunteers. He can be reached via e-mail at dls@peachtree-city.org