Sonoma County Gazette, August 2013

NOTE: The meeting referenced below has been changed to November 22, 2013.

Down the Drain:  ‘Treated Sewage’ or ‘Recycled Water’? Words have the power to conjure up all kinds of feelings for good or ill, such as “treated sewage” or “recycled water”.  Most people would never dream that these disparate terms represent the same product.

Over the years, there has been this subtle and intentional shift in language  to persuade the public to accept exposures to treated wastewater in everyday life.  After all, it looks and smells the same as potable, and even experts can’t tell the difference.  Some officials and politicians have even tasted the local chemical concoction to certify it’s high quality.  Over the years, what used to be ‘treated sewage’ became ‘treated effluent’, then ‘wastewater’ or ‘treated wastewater’, and finally ‘recycled water’, this latter having entirely removed the ‘yuk!’ factor.  Yet little has changed in the content of the product.

Current treatment of the raw sewage is better than it used to be, and probably the term ‘treated sewage’ is no longer fair,  but ‘recycled water’ is very misleading, since of the approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market, only 125 are regulated.  We have a long way to go before we should agree to drink the stuff.  What we are learning about endocrine disrupting chemicals (most pesticides are in that category, for example) is that children are more vulnerable than adults and low dose exposures can have major impacts on the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.

The State Water Board long ago decided to ease water shortages by promoting the widespread reuse of treated wastewater for irrigation.  Locally, this promotion translated into about 2.3 billion gallons of Santa Rosa’s treated wastewater discharged onto our Laguna watershed, mostly in summer time.  This represents about a third of all Santa Rosa’s wastewater generated.  The intention of course, was to keep all the water on the land and allow it to be taken up by the crops or evaporated into the atmosphere.  While this may be what happens with most of the irrigated water, there is evidence that a significant amount winds up in our waterways.