Toilet to tap? Some in drought-prone California say it’s time

As drought and water shortages become California’s new normal, more and more of the water that washes down drains and flushes down toilets is being cleaned and recycled for outdoor irrigation.

But some public officials, taking cues from countries where water scarcity is a fact of life, want to take it further and make treated wastewater available for much more — even drinking.

“This is a potential new source of water for California,” said former Assemblyman Rich Gordon. “We need to find water where we can.”


In a sense, the water we drink today has been recycling since the beginning of time, thanks to the natural water cycle. Recycling wastewater in a treatment plant simply speeds up that process, and experts say the source of water is not as important as its quality.

“There are places in the world where people are drinking recycled water,” Gordon said. “In fact, it’s the water our astronauts drink at the space station.”

Water recycling is more the norm in countries like Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Australia, which have long had water shortages. Israel reclaims about 80 percent of its wastewater, while Singapore reclaims almost 100 percent. The reclaimed water is extensively used to irrigate agricultural lands and recharge aquifers in Israel, while most of Singapore’s water is used for industrial purposes.

And because sending loads of water into space wasn’t an option, NASA scientists installed the Environmental Control and Life Support System at the International Space Station so astronauts could safely drink  recycled water.

A poll from last year revealed that 83 percent of Californians are “ready to use” recycled water “in their everyday lives.” And a spot survey in downtown San Jose supported the poll’s findings.

“I would drink it,” said Ing-Shien Wu, a Mountain View resident who works in San Jose. “Yeah, it sounds weird. Yes, it was once your waste. But in some sense we are recycling the water anyway.

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Chris Alexakiswater