It’s hard to know whether to take this as good news or bad news: the US National Research Council (NRC) says we might soon worry less about water shortages thanks to technology advances that would let us turn municipal wastewater — ie, the stuff you flush and otherwise send down your household drain — back into nice, clean drinking water.
Even if your response is, “Hey, that’s great,” it’s hard not to also feel that this is a bit like eating the seed corn or burning the furniture for fuel. Really, is our water situation so desperate that we’re ready to start drinking toilet water?
While we’re all for efficiency, even if you eliminate the “ick” factor, this potential solution raises a lot of questions. How much energy would go into this process, and would that create an overall plus or minus on the sustainability scale? What happens to all the stuff left over after treatment — how do we manage that? And could this mess up nature’s water cycle even more than we have already?
The exhaustive (363 pages) NRC study acknowledges plenty of uncertainties that need to be addressed before wastewater-to-drinking water goes mainstream: potential impacts on health, greenhouse gas emissions, cost, unintended consequences, security, legal considerations and much more.
Then again, as journalist Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst,” has pointed out, all the water we’ve ever drunk has been around in one form or another for the past 4.5 billion years. At least some of it, he notes, was probably Tyrannosaurus Rex pee.