When Eric Seifert brewed a trial batch of beer with recycled sewage water in 2017, he wasn’t too worried about the outcome. The engineering firm that approached him about the test explained the process, and together they drank samples of the recycled water. Seifert quickly realized that this was not too different from normal water handling.
“Every stream and river in this country is being dumped by someone after treatment,” he said.
After tapping the keg and tasting, the owner of 105 West Brewing Co. in Castle Rock, Colorado proudly served it in his bar.
Brewing beer, cooking food and filling water bottles with recycled wastewater could soon become common practice in a state synonymous with its pristine taste of snowmelt and mountain springs.
Last week, Colorado’s water quality agency gave unanimous preliminary approval to regulate direct drinking water reuse — the process of treating wastewater and sending it directly to faucets without first dispersing it into a larger body of water. Pending a final vote in November, the state will be the first to adopt direct potable reuse rules, according to WateReuse, a national advocacy group for the method.
“Having well-drafted regulations … helps ensure that projects are safe and that project proponents know what will be required of them,” said Laura Belanger, a water resources engineer with the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.
As the state’s population grows and regional water supplies dwindle, drinking water recycling is a significant opportunity to augment limited supplies, said Kevin Reidy, conservation specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Council. And he said it’s a game-changer for a place like Castle Rock, a town of 75,000 just south of Denver located under its well-known namesake butte, which relies mainly on pumping a limited amount of groundwater for drinking purposes.
“I believe this is an important tool in the long term because it gives water providers options to respond to future water shortages caused by drought or other causes,” said Mark Marlow, director of Castle Rock Water.
The utility already reuses about 14% of its wastewater, sending it to the stream from treatment plants and diverting it further downstream. But as climate change leads to drier conditions in the western United States, stream flow is becoming less reliable.
With a dry bed, water is “lost” into the ground, instead of being recaptured and sent back to the taps. Mixing highly treated wastewater directly at the plant eliminates the climate risk, Marlow said.
The process, which usually involves disinfecting wastewater with ozone or ultraviolet light to remove viruses and bacteria, then filtering it through membranes with microscopic pores to remove solid particles and trace pollutants, is gaining interest as communities struggle with prolonged droughts. While many U.S. states do not explicitly ban this type of water reuse, developing statewide standards could help speed adoption, said Reidy of the Colorado Conservation Council.
There are no specific federal regulations for direct potable reuse. However, projects must meet federal sanitary standards for drinking water.
Like many Colorado cities, Castle Rock is still evaluating the cost and urgency of switching to direct potable reuse, but plans to begin testing next year to be ready to act quickly if necessary. Even so, it may be three to five years before a new source becomes available.
That’s actually a short time frame for developing a new water supply, much faster than building a reservoir over 20 to 30 years, Reidy said. “You’re looking at the long term.”
Interest is widely shared among other Colorado cities, many of which are involved in the rulemaking process. The region is expecting rapid population growth over the next few decades, and treating wastewater for drinking is how that growth will be met, said Aurora Water’s Greg Baker.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get new water,” Baker said. “The more we can use the water we already have, the better for all of us.”
Treated wastewater from local rivers and streams often must be returned to the source for downstream users who are subject to minimum flows as required by various laws. But imports, such as Colorado River water pumped across the Continental Divide and down to the Front Range, can in many cases be fully utilized.
Almost all of Aurora’s water can be reused. The city currently reuses about 10%, filtered through the banks of the South Platte River, and is well positioned for future growth through expanded recycling, Baker said.
Florida, California and Arizona are also moving rapidly toward rulemaking, and several other states are beginning the process or have projects already in place. As conditions on the Colorado River continue to deteriorate, Arizona faces deep mandatory water shutoffs while California is under increasing pressure to give up more of its share — a strong incentive to find ways to increase what they have.
Denver and Colorado Springs — the state’s most populous cities — already recycle much of their water through exchanges with other cities downstream and for non-potable uses such as parks. Both plan to someday recycle the water for drinking, but officials worry that their reusable supplies from the strained Colorado River could soon face mandatory cuts.
“When you’ve built a large direct potable reuse system and you don’t have it for even a few years, that causes some problems,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water.
“When we rely on multiple (drinking water) supplies to meet our customers’ needs, our ability to meet their needs is at risk,” Fisher said.
Water recycling projects can come with a hefty price tag, although federal funding is available. The Environmental Protection Agency offers low-cost loans for water infrastructure projects, including recycling. Thanks to the US Bureau of Reclamation’s water recycling programs, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act offers more than $1 billion over the next five years for non-federal water recycling projects.
As part of this program, $20 million was recently awarded to the El Paso Water Department to build a potable reuse facility. The project is expected to save 13,000 acre-feet of water annually — enough to supply about 26,000 households.
Not all projects will qualify for federal aid, so the costs may fall on the shoulders of users. But delaying reuse and relying on new water — if it’s available — can be costly.
“You have to weigh that against the cost of the new materials and the storage space,” Reidy said.
Seifert already knows he can make good beer from recycled water. He is more concerned about reducing the cost of doing business.
“I am concerned that the resources will be available for the planned growth in a way that is affordable for this region,” Seifert said. “But at the moment, I believe that they are working on it.”
Follow Peterson on Twitter: @BrittanyKPeters
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