Sonoma County Gazette, April 2014: The Dangers of Recycled Water

April is the month we celebrate the Earth, it’s bountiful resources, its diverse creatures and cultures and all its beauty. It is also the time when we need to consider the interrelationship of all life forms. Yet we tend to compartmentalize information and struggle to comprehend the vast web we all weave, seldom noting that every thing is connected to everything else, and every action reverberates through life’s web.

Small amounts can have huge consequences…
Endocrinologists discovered awhile back that minute exposures to endocrine disrupting toxins (such as most pesticides, herbicides, etc.) can have cataclysmic effects on fetal development and adult organ systems; it can cause reproductive cancer; it can feminize male frogs; it can masculinize female sea gulls; it is suspected of causing heart disease, autism, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and more. The problems created by these chemicals may cause as much harm as global warming, since effects can be carried down through unborn generations.

We live in a chemical world that is significantly under regulated. It is surmised that 80,000 or more chemicals exist with hundreds of new ones produced each year. We have little knowledge about how they interact with one another. Many of these are found in our bodies, including fetal blood and mother’s milk. Earth’s species are apparently going through their sixth major extinction, and the first caused entirely by man, yet we go on about our business as though none of this is real.

Risk assessment needs an overhaul…
We still rely on conventional risk assessment to determine harm; holding the common, antiquated assumption that “…the dose makes the poison”. BEFORE regulations are promulgated and enforced, suspected toxins are allowed full use. In the case of tertiary wastewater reuse, many substances are assumed to be safe at low doses even while more and more scientific evidence indicates that is not always the case. (The Clean Water Act list of 125 priority pollutants has had no additions in over 25 years.) On this basis, the State Water Board found that monitoring for endocrine disrupting chemicals was unnecessary before irrigating parks, playgrounds, and schools where children play.

Many scientists, especially those in the field of endocrinology, now call for application of the precautionary principle, defined as: “When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.”, but regulators have largely turned a deaf ear to real reform.

Wastewater irrigation seen as partial solution to water crisis…
The State is heavily promoting wastewater irrigation to stretch California’s water supply, while still not requiring mandatory conservation. (Water sales data of Water Agency contractors during period of voluntary water saving media campaign indicated that Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park purchased 7% less water this year over last, rather than 20% savings called for, while other contractors all used MORE over same period.) And a new proposal gives us more cause for concern.

AB 2071 aims to save potable water by giving wastewater to cows…
Assemblyman Marc Levine, concerned about the drought, recently proposed legislation (AB 2071) to determine whether feeding cows and other pasture animals recycled water could be formally authorized by State Department of Health Services (DOHS) within one year.

The proposed legislation is summarized as follows:
“Existing law requires the State Department of Public Health to establish uniform statewide recycling criteria for each varying type of use of recycled water where the use involves the protection of public health. This bill would require the department to approve the use of tertiary treated recycled water for the purpose of providing water to pasture animals, by January 1, 2016, unless the department determines that this use would harm public health.”

The legislation assumes that tertiary wastewater, in which only a small number of toxins are currently monitored and regulated, will quickly be deemed by DOHS to also be safe for cows, calves, heifers and other pasture animals. Up to now, there has been no determination of safety for this particular use, although ostensibly many dairies have used tertiary wastewater for this purpose.

Community meeting to discuss proposal meets opposition…
On Feb. 27th, 2014, Assemblyman Levine held a community meeting on this proposed legislation including dairy industry representatives, Petaluma City Council, Sonoma County Water Agency, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, WateReuse California, DOHS, Bay Area Water Quality Control Board, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a few others gave brief presentations. The public was also allowed to speak.

Local dairymen expressed strong reservations about the prospects of using wastewater for this purpose. George McClelland and Albert Straus, local organic dairymen, do NOT use this wastewater, and are strongly opposed to this practice. Straus was concerned about turning his cows into guinea pigs to test the safety of the practice and McClelland was concerned about public perception and the viability of the dairy industry if such a practice were formally pursued. (This is particularly problematic since apparently 90% of our local dairies are organic.)

Mike Healy, Petaluma City Councilman was concerned about finding alternatives for the 50,000 gallons of Petaluma’s share of Russian River water that now goes to dairies.

According to some of the other panel experts, it may be extremely difficult to prove that there is no potential harm from endocrine disrupting chemicals if tertiary wastewater is used in this manner. Expensive monitoring would be necessary and in the end may provide inconclusive results. None believed that this task could be completed within a year as called for in the legislation.

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee’s testimony at the hearing included a portion of an Abstract from the Fourth International Conference on Farm Animal Endocrinology:

“Endocrine Disrupting Compounds are generally present in the environment at low concentrations, but they are ubiquitous and persistent and, although environmental concentrations are low, they appear to exert a range of adverse effects on animals of many species, including humans. Their effects include disruption of reproductive function and of the immune system and they can be carcinogenic.”

WateReuse, CA has been major proponent of wastewater reuse…

Most of the other participants, but for Dr. David Smith of WateReuse, also had serious reservations. Dr. Smith advocated for the City of Santa Rosa for 28 years, and much of that time led the City’s quest for 20% Russian River discharge before new salmon protection regulations were implemented and the Geysers project was built. He has led State efforts to increase opportunities for wastewater reuse and works on behalf of large utilities state wide. As head of WateReuse, California, he helped author several pieces of legislation (AB 2398 and 803) that called for the spread of tertiary wastewater without monitoring or regulation of endocrine disrupting compounds, and helped craft AB 2071 also.

Now is the time for us to think about Mother Earth and whether we want to continue in our current direction.