Wastewater Reuse and its Impact on the Environment

In the world as we know it today, and with all the conversations around climate change, there is one thing that is certain: water is the most critical natural resource on this planet. Whether you believe in climate change or not, it is imperative that all of us understand the scarcity of potable (drinking) water in our future.

In my travels, I am never amazed to see what municipalities are doing to conserve water resources, whether it is proactive or reactive does not matter. What matters is that they are doing something.

Case in point, Wichita Falls, Texas is blending effluent water from their wastewater stream with source water from their city reservoir to create drinking water for the city. Wichita Falls was one of the first to use their valuable effluent water in this manner, but many other cities are now looking into this technology.

Other cities are currently using effluent water from wastewater plants to irrigate the local golf courses or the city’s parks and landscaping projects. All of these are great uses of effluent water resources. Any city that can justify the cost of installing purple pipe (wastewater reuse pipe) for irrigation should make the leap to do so.

The upside of using effluent water for irrigation is that it often contains nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous compounds that are beneficial to grass and landscaping. Golf courses, streetscapes, city parks, sports complexes, large subdivisions and even agriculture can all benefit from using effluent water.

I have never understood why any city would want to use treated drinking water to irrigate a homeowners’ lawn, city park, sports complex, or golf course. Raw water for irrigation is one thing, but treated water is another. In my opinion, even raw water should be used sparingly for non-agricultural irrigation purposes.

So, what are the positives of using effluent water? Money – you can and should charge for it. Not to mention it’s better for the environment. Just like with potable water, you can charge for the quantity used, especially to any end user that is not a part of city government.

Reuse water also comes with some negative attributes. The biggest negative for using reuse water is not the actual water, it is public perception. So how do you adjust public opinion? The answer is always education, education, education. There are some other negatives to consider. The cost of running purple pipe is not cheap.

Additionally, water rights in some states do not allow the use of effluent for irrigation, or they have recharge limits that affect the use of effluent. Regardless, every new subdivision, golf course or park could/should be required to use it. If you can institute a reuse program, your city may not have to buy as much fertilizer from the local fertilizer dealer.

I’m not sure if this is a benefit or a negative, but it’s definitely a cost savings to the community as you will spend less on fertilizers and less on creating potable water for irrigation.

There are other things to consider that could also be seen as negatives. Probably the next most prominent negative we see is that effluent water can be heavily loaded with salts/sodium. Although the technology has been changing, I have seen wastewater effluent with sodium levels as high as 7000 ppm (0.7%). Salts can be detrimental to having a balanced soil and can affect plants if allowed to accumulate in the soil.

When the sodium levels get too high, it effects the root zone of the plant and will cause plants to die or not develop adequate roots. Without adequate root systems, their access to water and nutrients is reduced causing them to be less heat tolerant – requiring even more water. If the sodium level is high enough it will kill the soil microbiology, which the plant depends on for many micronutrients.

What we have witnessed over the years is, the plants most susceptible to sodium contamination are evergreen trees and shrubs. In many cases, we see all the needles turning brown and falling off the tree where there is overspray from irrigation. Eventually, the entire tree will die.

A recent publication from Farmington, New Mexico outlined some of the causes for high salts in wastewater, and more importantly, how to reduce salts. The most effective way to reduce salts in wastewater is, of course, public education! The city of Farmington recommends using only liquid dish and laundry detergents, along with only fabric dryer sheets.

They also recommend checking on your water softeners. Do you really need one? Is it only being used on demand or is it on a timer? How is the timer set? Can it be bypassed to only treat the essential areas where water softeners are beneficial? I lived in a town in Wyoming many years ago where, due to the hardness of the water, I would jokingly say, “You could be stoned to death in your shower if you weren’t careful!”.

FYI, as far as I know, no one ever died that way. This is one place where a water softener may have been beneficial.

The best way to help prevent sodium damage to soils and plants is to make sure your soil has substantial organic matter (OM). This can be determined by completing a soils analysis and looking at the percent OM.

Higher percentages like 4 to 8 percent are good. If percentages of OM are less than 4, you may need to supplement the area with easily incorporated, liquid compounds of organic acids, surfactants, and other soil amendments.

Also, I recommend that in any area where you are using reuse water that you only use organic fertilizer, soil amendments and pesticides. Do not use any compounds that are salt, sodium or petroleum based.

For a list of soil and plant management products we recommend for improving the health of soils and assisting with reuse water irrigation programs, please contact BioLynceus® at (970) 586-3391 or [email protected]

©Article is copyright 2019 protected by Rick Allen, BioLynceus®

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