Waste not, want not: reclaimed water can help secure a sustainable future

Posted in: Municipal, Water

In recent years, we have seen a national shift in how wastewater is conceptualized. Currently our groundwater aquifers are being depleted in some regions. Large quantities of water supply withdrawals can be saved by wastewater reuse, so reuse of water will necessarily increase with the global population and climate change. Water, in all its forms, is valuable, and our collective future depends on careful use of this resource.

This stark ecological imperative has predicated a national shift in how we think about and value wastewater treatment plants. Because wastewater treatment plants help return clean water to the environment, they play an instrumental role as we strive for a more sustainable future. They are now being consciously rebranded as water reclamation, water reuse and water renewal plants.

Our increased emphasis on achieving more sustainable sanitation and wastewater management has required new ways to manage our resources. Not only do these plants seek to reclaim wastewater and make it suitable for a variety of uses, the biproducts of the plants can also be reused as vital resources. Biosolids can be reused as fertilizer, providing valuable nutrients to farming operations. Methane gas created during processing can be reused for energy in the treatment processing system.

Many of these facilities are also incorporating constructed wetlands for the final stages of water treatment. These engineered systems use wetland vegetation, soils, and their associated microbial assemblages to improve water quality. Constructed wetlands not only provide valuable habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife; they also offer the public a chance to really see these environments in action. This public education is vital if we want to change public opinion of wastewater.

A few examples can be toured within close proximity to where I live in Portland: the wildlife sanctuary created at Fern Hill, the Talking Water Gardens along the Willamette River, and the cascading water feature at Oregon Gardens. If you are local, take the opportunity to check them out, or research similar facilities where you live.

We all have a responsibility to be adaptable to these changes. This conscious re-understanding of our wastewater management facilities and the value they hold offers an important step towards an improved public understanding of water reuse potential. We have to adapt on a cultural as well as industry level as we move into the future. The environmental concerns dictating this shift remain in full effect—and will for generations to come.

Kari Nichols, PE

About the Author

If a raindrop falls on the project, Kari Nichols, P.E., gets involved to find a stormwater management solution. “I believe in dedication and follow-through,” she says. “Deciphering regulatory language and developing workable design solutions helps me connect with clients and colleagues.” Kari has a taste for adventure and a passion for sustainability, which she satisfies by exploring natural and urban environments.

Read more posts by Kari Nichols, PE

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