California’s Toilet-to-Tap Water Future – 'Soylent Green' or Clean?

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

August 18, 2013

“Soylent Green is people!” cried Charlton Heston’s character – detective Robert Thorn – in the memorable closing scene of the 1973 sci-fi cult classic film Soylent Green. In this overpopulated, dystopian future vision, a polluted New York City is a hellhole besieged by 40 million long-suffering residents. Coincidentally, 40 million is the number of long-suffering residents California is approaching.

Housing in Soylent Green’s NYC of 2022 is rundown and overcrowded; the streets are choked with the homeless and jobless; crime and violence are rampant, and everyone is sweltering and sweating in a warmed world. Because food is in short supply, most of the population survives on rations of Soylent Green, an artificial green wafer manufactured by the Soylent Corporation. By the end of the movie, Thorn discovers that these wafers contain not bioengineered plankton but pureed people. Such a large human population produces so many corpses that authorities deem it better to recycle this “resource” than try to bury or dispose of them.

Technical progress in water purification such that this indispensable liquid might run almost literally from our toilets to our taps has some Californians wondering if this sort of reuse and recycling isn’t a case of science fiction becoming science fact. Is a version of Soylent Green becoming a reality in California? While we wouldn’t be consuming the flesh of dead humans, we would be drinking the purified liquid waste of live ones.

These musings are prompted by a new $68 million wastewater treatment plant near Alviso in Santa Clara County. Producing up to eight million gallons of water a day, the new plant uses an innovative, three-step process including microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light. The water that emerges is said to be ultra-clean, giving Sierra snowmelt a run for its money.

Yet apparently enough residents have raised a stink at the thought of drinking what they flushed down the toilet several days ago – however clean and pure officials reassure them it is – that the new Alviso water plant’s output won’t be going into homes for domestic use. Instead, it will be diverted to fire hydrants, landscaping and fountains.

Almost everyone supports recycling, but folks get queasy and have qualms about drinking recycled water.

If California’s population continues to grow, then fresh water will become an ever scarcer and costlier commodity. We will have little choice but to rely on more and more techno-fixes like toilet-to-tap recycling just to make ends meet. The state’s residents will just have to swallow their queasiness and overcome this stigma.

And a new generation of bumper stickers might read: “Don’t Forget to Flush – I’m Thirsty!”

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