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Tom Crawford: Saving water today beats toilet to tap tomorrow
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This is what’s happening in California as the state tries to cope with a record-breaking drought that is now in its fourth year.

Some state officials are proposing that the Golden State implement a water recycling policy that is known as “direct potable reuse.”

Direct potable reuse involves taking sewer water, treating it through a three-step process, and then pumping it directly back into the water supply so that it can be used for drinking.

In effect, human beings would do the same thing their pet dogs do when they lap water from a commode. Critics of the concept refer to it somewhat distastefully as “toilet to tap.”

It isn’t just California, either. Water districts in Texas and other dry areas of the West are also giving serious thought to recycling wastewater as drinking water.

“For some communities in the United States, reclaimed water is the only supply of water they have or can access to meet demands, including for drinking water,” said Guy Carpenter, an Arizona engineer.

We could be looking at the future of water supplies in Georgia, where there have been two serious droughts over the past 15 years. Readers may remember the second drought was so prolonged that then-Gov. Sonny Perdue held a rally on the Capitol steps to pray for rain.

These droughts are a result of global warming, which means we will likely see more of them in the future. I don’t relish the thought of having reclaimed sewer water pour out of my tap during the next drought, but what’s the alternative?

One step would be to enact a stronger package of conservation regulations so that the water we do have can last longer.

Conservation is a bad word with much of Georgia’s political leadership. If you talk about requiring the use of plumbing fixtures that are more water-efficient, they’ll complain that you’re proposing “burdensome” government regulations. But what could be more burdensome than relying on sewers for your drinking water?

The attitude of our elected leaders has been that it’s better to spend billions of dollars to impound reservoirs or inject water into underground aquifers than to encourage people to use less of it.

Here’s the dirty little secret: We actually do a pretty good job of conserving water when we set our minds to it.

Research by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that during the period from 1980 through 2010, Georgia’s water consumption decreased by 30 percent even though its population increased by more than 70 percent. The amount of water taken out of rivers and aquifers dropped from 6.7 billion gallons per day in 1980 to 4.7 billion gallons per day in 2010.

Part of that decrease was a result of individuals doing a better job of conserving water. Part of it happened because the electric utilities shut down several coal-fired generation plants, which use large amounts of water, and replaced them with natural gas facilities that use less.

There are some simple measures that could keep that trend going.

Instead of spending valuable tax dollars to fight an expensive water war with Florida and Alabama, Georgia could settle the litigation by lowering its demands for water from reservoirs and rivers. The money spent on legal fees could be used on programs to encourage more conservation.

The person overseeing the federal case has warned Georgia’s lawyers they should think about this. “We are talking a lot of money and a result you may not like,” special master Ralph Lancaster said recently. “I’m going to urge you to discuss a settlement seriously.”

Georgia Power should be commended for shutting down so many of its coal-fired power plants, but another drain on water supplies is the operation of nuclear power plants.

Two nuclear reactors are being built at Plant Vogtle that are plagued by cost overruns and are now 39 months behind schedule. The Public Service Commission could terminate the Vogtle project — which it has the authority to do — and instruct Georgia Power to build a gas-fired plant that uses less water.

All of these steps could be feasibly accomplished, although there would be tremendous political pressure brought to bear by the utilities and the business lobbyists.

On the other hand, if you would rather drink water that comes from a river than from a sewer line, you might want to think about taking these actions.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.

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