September 21, 2010 | General

Climate Change Connections: Real Risk of Resource Depletion

BioCycle September 2010, Vol. 51, No. 9, p. 68
Sally Brown

Last month, I shared how accomplished I was feeling about how so many of the things that I had written about as good ideas were coming to be reality. One thing that I didn’t discuss in that column – but that I’m going back to in this one – is my son’s friend Homer. In a column I wrote on risk assessment (see “Educated Risk,” November 2009), I described how Homer’s mom wouldn’t let him come over to our houseboat because she was terrified that he would jump off the roof with the rest of the kids and drown. I used that example to illustrate losing sight of the big picture and being too focused on the small stuff, arguing that too much of a focus on the small stuff would leave one unprepared to deal with the big picture.
I’m going to talk about how the people who write regulations haven’t followed my advice, Homer’s mom not withstanding. I am happy to report that Homer has, with his mom’s permission, jumped off the roof. He was even allowed to come to the house in the mountains and float down the river. Homer’s mom is doing fine. In many ways, the regulatory climate is not as progressive as Homer’s mom.
I’m going to discuss water regulations, although it also applies to composts and biosolids. Water is going to be, and in many places already is, an enormous issue. Scarcity of clean drinking water and the elimination of water borne disease are becoming very high priorities on an international level. Here in the U.S. we are very lucky to have access to highly regulated, clean drinking water. There are, however, big questions as to how sustainable our supply is and how well we are making use of what we have.
Climate change is going to make water even more of a precious commodity. Rain is going to fall harder and less frequently, increasing runoff and reducing storage in both soil and snow packs. Water shortages, believe it or not, are already occurring in the Pacific Northwest. Now this is particularly frustrating for me as we had one of the coolest and cloudiest Junes on record. “Junuary” the forecasters were calling it. This type of June is going to be more the norm over time as the temperature inland heats up and creates a differential from the cooler coast.
Nevertheless here in the Pacific Northwest, flows in many salmon bearing streams are already below what has been defined as critical levels for fish during the summer months. Low flow translates to higher temperatures and low dissolved oxygen concentrations.
One way to conserve water is to use it as many times as possible before we let it head back to the ocean. Examples of what I mean are using grey water (water from households other than water from toilets) directly for irrigation, or using treated water from wastewater treatment plants. Direct use of grey water for lawn irrigation and even for vegetable gardens would save a lot of energy.
Wastewater treatment plants are big energy hogs. Giving them less water to treat (e.g., on-site grey water reuse) would save energy. It would also save water in two ways. Right now a lot of water is lost on the way to the water treatment plant. The piping to convey the water is not so new anymore and in many cases, there are significant leaks along the way. Lots of lost water. Secondly, the vast majority of wastewater treatment plants were built to discharge treated water directly into rivers or oceans. It is very hard to reuse fresh water after you’ve dumped it into the ocean (desalinization is the official term for that). Rerouting the treated water so it isn’t dumped into oceans and streams means very high costs for new piping to move treated water uphill away from the treatment plant. But this is an investment in sustainability.
Using treated water from wastewater treatment plants offers the potential to access a very predictable, both in quantity and quality, supply of water. Uses of reclaimed water include irrigation, industrial uses, further treatment to produce potable water, and ecological applications. For example, the 200 million gallons of water treated every day in Seattle could be used to enhance stream flows and protect salmon.

But try to get this past any state environmental agency.
For example, the Washington State Department of Ecology (WADOE) is an excellent agency with a laudable mission of protecting human health and the environment. On its website you can read about programs to address climate change and manage limited water resources. It is not dissimilar from other states’ environment departments.
And like its counterparts in other states, WADOE developed water quality regulations with the first and foremost goal of protecting human and environmental health from any contaminants that might be in the water. The focus has been on protection based on excess supply. Enough water so that they could be ultra-protective. So protective that it is really hard for these agencies to switch gears and start realizing that the bigger threat is not having enough. Not enough water is much, much more of a concern than having water with detectable levels of mercury. Especially when detectable is at this point parts per trillion or less.
But supply is what we have to think about now. The real potential for the absence of water needs to be considered as a much more significant threat than some of the contaminants currently regulated. Fish are protected from a one in a million chance of a health problem from mercury, ignoring the 50:50 chance that they will choke to death because of low water flow and associated low dissolved oxygen concentrations.

First, a grey water example. My friend Sue from swimming has illegally plumbed her house so she can use the bathwater to water her plants. She had to swear to the plumber that she would never let on that he had done this. Bathwater can and will have some coliform bacteria. These come from your body. If you drank bathwater, you might get sick. The regulations that prohibit use of grey water without treatment were likely developed to protect people from drinking bathwater.
Seattle requires a permit to use grey water and the system has to be plumbed with approved technology. There is currently one approved system. How would you balance the risks associated with irrigation with grey water with the energy use and water loss associated with piping the bathwater to the treatment plant, discharging it to the ocean and using potable water for your hydrangeas? In some parts of the country it is legal to use grey water for irrigation. In fact, some newer housing developments have built in grey water irrigation systems. Perhaps it is time to make this both legal and encouraged.
Next, a reclaimed water example. Washington State has separate standards for irrigation with reclaimed water, groundwater recharge, direct discharge into lakes and drinking water. The most stringent of these are the groundwater recharge standards (yes, they are more stringent than the drinking water standards). These vary based on project, location and other factors. While you could treat reclaimed water to meet groundwater standards, it would be so expensive that there is no incentive for a water treatment agency to do this.
Many water treatment agencies in Washington State are working to establish reclaimed water programs. They’ve met with WADOE to develop standards that would allow for maximum use of reclaimed water to enhance existing supplies while simultaneously being protective of the environment. The initial word is WADOE is not budging.
It is time for different regulatory agencies as well as public agencies that manage these resources to start working together. Realistic regulations need to be developed that consider both the risks of any potential contaminants along with the benefits of using the materials. This has to be done with a mindset for our new age. We are no longer in the age of endless resources where we can ignore the potential to run out. Running out is real and is happening. It is a much greater threat than what so many regulators, with the best intentions, are trying to protect us from.

Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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