To hear some candidates tell it, if you don’t vote for them, you’ll soon be drinking water that your neighbor flushed down the toilet a few days ago.
They call it “toilet to tap” or “flush to faucet” and, yes, treating wastewater to safe drinking-water standards is one potential method Florida is studying and considering to assure there is enough water to meet the demands of a growing state.
“By 2035, Florida will need an additional 1.1 billion gallons of water per day to meet projected needs,” according to a 2020 report from the Florida Potable Reuse Commission.
“Potable reuse” is the preferred term among people in charge of supplying and treating water for human use.
But, is toilet-to-tap going to happen soon? No. Will it happen in Volusia County? Maybe, but not soon.
“Currently, direct potable reuse for drinking water wouldn’t be permitted by the State of Florida, because the Florida Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t completed the rule-making for potable reuse as a drinking-water source,” Volusia County Public Works Director Ben Bartlett told The Beacon.
Not only does the giant (and slow) bureaucratic machine we call state government need to grind out rules for treating wastewater to drinking-water standards, there are other obstacles. Potable reuse is expensive. It requires new facilities, new infrastructure and highly skilled personnel. And, it’s not the only option.
An alternate option in wide use for years in West Volusia is a form of wastewater reuse, but the end product isn’t drinking water. Instead, it’s water for the lawn.
In addition to thinking about where to get water, utility providers must also think about what to do with the water that we use but don’t consume: water that flows out of the washing machine, drains from the bathtub and trickles down the sink — in addition to water that’s flushed down the toilet.
DeLand was the first city in the region to develop the infrastructure to treat wastewater to irrigation standards, and to be able to pipe it to homes, schools and golf courses.
Now, all new subdivisions in DeLand are required to be built with the capability to use reclaimed water for irrigation. The city sells — at a reduced price — between 3.8 million and 4.5 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater every year.
That’s 3.8 million to 4.5 million gallons of potable water DeLand doesn’t have to withdraw from the aquifer — the primary source of drinking water in Florida.
Every gallon of treated wastewater sprinkled on grass is a gallon of drinking water saved, and the practice postpones the need to turn to more-expensive alternatives like toilet-to-tap or desalination.
Cities or regions that don’t have robust reclaimed-water systems like DeLand’s will likely turn to those more-expensive alternatives sooner, DeLand Utilities Director Jim Ailes said.
DeLand’s reclaimed-water system is growing, adding new established neighborhoods that can access it for lawn irrigation.
“We try to expand it out every year,” Ailes said.
Using treated wastewater for irrigation also keeps that water from being dumped into lakes, rivers and other natural bodies of water. The practice used to be common in Florida; now it’s rare in Volusia County.
Retired longtime DeLand Public Services Director Keith Riger — who led DeLand’s push to recycle water for lawns years ago — said, nowadays, water sometimes goes in the opposite direction. DeLand’s reclaimed water is so popular for irrigation that sometimes the city must borrow from the St. Johns River to supplement its supply.
Riger, while conceding that he shares the negative perception of toilet-to-tap that many people have, said there is a chance in some areas that people are already using it.
He recalled early in his career working for the City of Atlanta. Flying over the sprawling metropolis, he said, you might observe a wastewater-treatment plant discharging effluent into the Chattahoochee River in one location, and a water-treatment plant drawing water from the river not far away, to treat for drinking.
Using a water supply that’s subject to wastewater discharge upstream is what the Florida Potable Reuse Commission calls “de facto,” or “unplanned,” potable reuse. There are a couple of locations where it happens in Florida, but not in Volusia County, according to the commission.
Of course, in areas where it does happen, the supply water is treated to drinking-water standards.
“Contaminants are so dispersed in the environment now,” DeLand’s Riger said. “We kind of have to rely on treatment systems.”
Figuring out exactly how those treatment systems need to work — and what the standards for drinkable water are — then getting everyone to agree, is one of the big jobs remaining before toilet-to-tap becomes anything close to common in Florida.
In the meantime, we’ve got the rest of the toolbox, and a key tool in there is conservation. The good news, according to Mike Ulrich, director of water resources and utilities for Volusia County, is that individual consumption of water is trending down.
Despite population growth, water use by customers in DeLand, Deltona, Orange City and unincorporated areas served by county utility systems was down to 19.55 million gallons per day in 2021, a 15-percent decrease from the 20.29 million gallons per day used in 2011.
“Individual water consumption is on the decline for several reasons,” DeLand’s Ailes said. “Most providers now have a block rate structure that encourages conservation by increasing rates for high users. Also, the availability of reclaim has become more widespread.”
The bottom line is, as our communities grow, new people will need new water, and we can’t continue to draw unlimited amounts from the aquifer without causing serious environmental damage.
“Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for Florida; however, increasing groundwater withdrawals are impacting springs, streams, lakes, wetlands and overall natural systems throughout the state,” the Potable Reuse Commission notes in its report.
Whether — or when — we turn to solutions like toilet-to-tap will likely depend on how well we all work together to use the tools we have to prevent the need for it.
“Currently,” according to Volusia County’s Bartlett, “the permitted capacity for consumptive use within the county’s service area is adequate for the anticipated growth.”
Bartlett added, “It’s very encouraging that more citizens and community leaders across the county and throughout the state are becoming increasingly aware of the value and importance of our groundwater supply.”
- Barb Shepherd
BY AL EVERSON
Happy hour? Would you drink to the notion of refining sewage water for your kitchen faucet?
“Toilet-to-tap” is the phrase used to refer to the proposal to take wastewater and treat it to advanced levels of purity for drinking and washing.
In August, the Volusia County Council revealed that its seven members are divided on how seriously to take toilet-to-tap, and whether to take any action to prevent it from becoming a reality in Volusia County.
Some say the whole idea is too expensive to even consider — at least now or in the immediate future — and therefore anyone who talks about it is either misinformed or is an alarmist stirring up unnecessary fear.
But those who might be labeled alarmists say the notion is getting serious attention and, therefore, is cause for concern. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, they counsel, and the continued mention of toilet-to-tap — and even denials of its imminence or feasibility — is reason enough to be skeptical of those who insist it is not on the horizon.
The issue came to the fore at a meeting of the Volusia County Council, when Daytona Beach City Commissioner Stacy Cantu spoke during the morning round of public participation.
Cantu chided County Chair Jeff Brower for bringing up toilet-to-tap at an earlier meeting and for citing Daytona Beach’s experiment involving the treatment of wastewater to safe-to-drink standards as evidence.
“The study was done for research purposes only,” she told Brower.
Cantu said there was no intention “to make any connection with the city’s water system.”
Toward the end of the day, before the County Council adjourned, toilet-to-tap — also known as flush-to-faucet — surfaced again when Brower referred back to Cantu’s remarks.
Armed with a report prepared by County Attorney Michael Dyer and Senior Assistant County Attorney Paolo Soria, Brower quoted from Senate Bill 64, passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.
That measure, Brower said, includes the following verbiage: “potable reuse is an alternative water supply and projects are eligible for alternative water supply funding. The use of potable reuse water may not be excluded from regional water supply planning. Florida Statutes §403.064(18)(d)” [Emphasis in the report].
While statutes don’t mandate the use of so-called toilet-to-tap, the state does require that municipalities don’t write off the idea completely.
Soria pointed out in his written report that a county policy against toilet-to-tap could be pre-empted by state policy, if the state is mandating a movement toward turning wastewater into potable water.
Concerned that such a prospect could become a reality in Volusia County sooner rather than later, Brower proposed that the County Council consider an amendment of the county’s home-rule charter barring the use of toilet-to-tap water.
Any amendment or addition to the charter requires a referendum, with a majority of the voters required to approve.
“Not us seven people decide, but the public vote on what they want, grey water, blackwater, reclaimed, and the possibility of it entering into our water supply,” Brower suggested.
A charter amendment would be more powerful than an ordinance, he noted.
Soria cautioned, however, that such a charter provision would apply only in the unincorporated areas, or possibly within the county’s utility service area.
Due to time constraints — including writing an ordinance and conducting required public hearings, before submitting it to the county’s Department of Elections for placing it on the Nov. 8 general-election ballot — Brower conceded that going to voters with a charter referendum won’t be possible this year.
That kicked off another round of debate.
“I want it to be known that I don’t want any part of it,” Council Member Ben Johnson said, adding the council should “invite St. Johns Management District to come in here and talk to us.”
Johnson added, “I’m not for toilet-to-tap, but I think St. Johns should come in and give us a presentation, so that we are educated and could make a better decision.”
Brower spoke of an urgency to act
“My opinion is that we’re behind the eight-ball,” he told Johnson.
Brower said the County Council should act before it is too late to stop toilet-to-tap from becoming a way of life.
“I think it would be dereliction of duty to ... act as if it doesn’t exist,” Brower said.
“There is no plan,” Johnson countered. “It can wait ‘til next year. ... We need to get all the information.”
The dueling dialogue continued.
“To say it’s not going to happen — they [state lawmakers] see that as a way to provide water,” Brower told Johnson and the rest of the council. “Daytona Beach had this project to provide information to the State of Florida.”
“It’s either in our future, or it’s not in our future,” Council Member Heather Post joined in. “Why would Daytona Beach spend millions of dollars to do testing on it?”
Post moved for the county’s administrative staff to provide more information to the County Council on a possible charter amendment. Her motion died because none of her colleagues would second it.
“It’s in the plans. It’s in our future because of the rapid expansion and growth,” Brower said. “The state is trying to take away local control.”
“In another 120 days, we’re going to have a new council that is going to have to look at the issues,” Council Member Barb Girtman said. “I don’t think this is an issue for this board.”
Brower steered the discourse by referring to actions in the state Capitol.
“They have come up with legislation that would pre-empt us from acting,” he said. “It not only exists, but the state is marching us to a requirement to do this.”
“Mr. Brower, I would say we’re not behind, because there’s absolutely no plan anywhere in the works,” Johnson challenged.
“I just read to you — ,“ Brower began.
“There’s no plan,” Johnson said.
“No, there’s not, Jeff. It sounds like this is a political issue for November,” Johnson said. “Let’s get the information first.”
“To say it’s not going to happen is just — ,” Brower insisted. “That’s the way they’re going to provide for the thousand people a day moving to Florida. ... I think we ought to try other things before we try toilet-to-tap.”
The debate ended in a draw.
BY NOAH HERTZ
A number of toilet-to-tap concerns and conspiracies in Volusia County stem from what some have argued is a smoking gun: the City of Daytona Beach’s pilot program to test the technology.
But city representatives are adamant that the project was merely for research purposes. Any argument that Daytona Beach will suddenly begin using recycled toilet water in its drinking supply is baseless, Assistant City Manager Andrew Holmes told The Beacon.
“I can tell you one of the key indicators that refutes that argument they’re making: The plant’s not designed for it,” he said. “We couldn’t do it if we wanted to, and we don’t want to.”
In October 2018, the Daytona Beach City Commission approved its utilities department embarking on a two-year pilot program to test the viability of rehabilitating water that has been flushed a time or two. The research project cost $3.1 million, but the utilities department got a $950,000 grant from the St. Johns River Water Management District to help pay for it.
The project was known as the Demonstration Testing System to Purify Reuse Effluent at the Westside Regional Water Reclamation Facility (WRWRF) Project.
One goal of the pilot program was to help produce data that the state and federal governments could use to develop standards for treating wastewater to drinking-water standards, Daytona Beach Utilities Director Shannon Ponitz said.
“The state is working on it. They use the data from our tests and others — because there's other places that are doing pilots, as well — they're using that to develop the framework, so we don’t have that yet,” she told The Beacon. “There’s things that we don’t currently test for in our drinking water because it’s not an issue, because we get groundwater. Pharmaceuticals, emerging contaminants, some of these things, but they did test for that in that study.”
Daytona Beach’s plant took effluent through a three-step process.
First, water was fed through a physical filtration system to remove solid waste and other particulates. According to a presentation given during tours of the facility, the pores of the filtration system were 0.002 to 0.1 microns wide. That’s compared to the width of human hair, which is approximately 70 microns.
Next, the water was pushed through another filter through reverse osmosis, a filtration process of using force to push water through a semiporous surface.
Lastly, harsh ultraviolet rays, combined with hydrogen peroxide, were used to chemically disinfect the water.
At the end of the three-step process, Ponitz said, the treated effluent looked no different from other drinking water. Given the strict guidelines of the testing, though, no one tasted the treated water.
And since the plant was shut down when the study concluded, The Beacon wasn’t able to get a sample to taste, either.
Daytona Beach’s study was supposed to conclude in 2020, but was interrupted for a year by COVID-19, and concluded only last October. The results are not yet available, but the city’s utility department hopes to see the project’s results in the coming weeks.
And, for the foreseeable future, that’s it. Daytona Beach doesn’t even plan to keep the equipment it used for the experiment.
“The equipment is disconnected,” Holmes said, “and the commission has instructed us to sell it, so we’re going to go through the disposal process.”
BY ELI WITEK
Below us flows the vast interconnected network known as the Floridan aquifer, a cheap, easy source of fresh water that serves as the fuel for many municipal water systems.
But with an estimated 6.4 billions gallons of water per day used by Floridians, and more people moving in every day, a search for alternative water supplies is underway.
Reclaimed water, the product of treated and filtered wastewater, is already used in many ways, from irrigation to wetlands creation and groundwater recharge.
In fact, reuse of water is now an important part of statewide water management, and nearly 48 percent of all wastewater is reused.
Although psychologically repulsive, in Florida, unlike in drought-ridden Western states, the idea of “toilet-to-tap” is really more like “toilet-to-aquifer-to-tap,” adding one layer of psychological separation for the mentally squeamish. In fact, that process already occurs via septic water discharge and reclaimed water use for irrigation and groundwater charging.
But what exactly does this all mean?
Wastewater includes water from toilets and urinals, colloquially known as “blackwater,” and water from sinks, bath drains, and washing machines, among others, known as “grey water.”
Although there are many methods, wastewater is generally pumped to water treatment plants through multiple lift stations. At the plant, coarse materials like sand and rags are removed by a screening process, often gravity-based, that allows sediments to fall.
That water is next sent to a tank, where it is aerated, and then sent on to be treated by a biological process. The veritable buffet of organic material present in wastewater is broken down by bacteria.
Once organic material has been removed, the water goes through an ultraviolet and chlorination process, and may also go through additional filtration options like reverse osmosis (which involves forcing water through a membrane that only allows water molecules to pass through), and carbon filtration (used commonly in household filters).
At this point, the water is generally considered reclaimed, but is not yet safe to drink because it contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.
Advanced wastewater treatment
There are multiple different types of methods for advanced wastewater treatment.
All include a denitrification process, to remove nitrogen. Processes include membrane bioreactor filtration — hollow-fiber, tubular membranes configured in bundles that pass water through, separating them into their basic components, hydrogen and oxygen.
Other methods include a denitrification process that creates an oxygen-free environment, where microorganisms use the oxygen molecules in nitrate (NO3-), reducing it to nitrogen dioxide (NO2-), and finally nitrogen gas, which is released into the air.
These are just two of many methods, and studies indicate a mixture of methods is the most successful.
The combination of different treatments can ultimately reduce the water to its most basic parts, so much so that, to become drinking water, minerals would have to be added back so that it would taste to us like water.
What about pharmaceuticals?
Pharmaceutical contaminants are considered “emerging contaminants of concern.” Partly because there are no set environmental regulations for the disposal of pharmaceuticals, the science behind pharma in the water is newer. Conventional water treatment did not address pharmaceutical removal.
No single method appears to completely remove pharmaceuticals, which often contain complex chemical structures that are not able to break down in the same way organic material is.
A multilevel process, or conventional treatment combined with advanced wastewater treatment and post-treatment methods, including disinfection, can produce water that meets the drinking standards of the state of Florida, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Perhaps most importantly, pharmaceuticals are already shown to be in our waterways because conventional water treatment does not adequately address their removal.
A recent study in South Florida showed an average of seven pharmaceuticals present in bonefish, with one fish showing an astounding 19 pharmaceuticals present.
Modernizing our water treatment systems to include advanced treatment options helps address this “emerging contaminant.”
BY BEACON STAFF
- Check your toilet for leaks.
Put a few drops of food coloring in your toilet tank. If, without flushing, the coloring begins to appear in the bowl, you have a leak that may be wasting more than 100 gallons of water a day.
- Stop using your toilet as an ashtray or wastebasket.
Every cigarette butt or tissue you flush away also flushes away 5 to 7 gallons of water.
- Put a plastic bottle in your toilet tank.
Put an inch or two of sand or pebbles in the bottom of a 1-liter bottle to weigh it down. Fill the rest of the bottle with water and put it in your toilet tank, safely away from the operating mechanism. In an average home, the bottle may save 5 gallons or more of water every day without harming the efficiency of the toilet. If your tank is big enough, you may even be able to put in two bottles.
- Take shorter showers.
A typical shower uses 5 to 10 gallons of water a minute. Limit your showers to the time it takes to soap up, wash down and rise off.
- Install water-saving showerheads or flow restrictors.
Your hardware or plumbing supply store stocks inexpensive showerheads or flow restrictors that will cut your shower flow to about 3 gallons a minute instead of 5 to 10. They are easy to install, and your showers will still be cleansing and refreshing.
- Take baths.
A partially filled tub uses less water than all but the shortest showers.
- Turn off the water while brushing your teeth.
Before brushing, wet your brush and fill a glass for rinsing your mouth.
- Turn off the water while shaving.
Fill the bottom of the sink with a few inches of warm water in which to rinse your razor.
- Check faucets and pipes for leaks.
Even a small drip can waste 50 or more gallons of water a day.
- Use your automatic dishwasher for full loads only.
Running your dishwasher less often saves water and money.
- Use your automatic washing machine for full loads only.
Your automatic washer uses 30 to 35 gallons per cycle.
- Don't let the faucet run while you clean vegetables
Rinse your vegetables instead in a bowl or sink full of clean water.
- Keep a bottle of drinking water in the refrigerator.
This puts a stop to the wasteful practice of running tap water to cool it for drinking.
- If you wash dishes by hand, don't leave the water running for rinsing.
If you have two sinks, fill one with rinse water. If you have only one sink, first gather all your washed dishes in a dish rack, then rinse them quickly with a spray device or a pan of water.
- Check faucets and pipes for leaks.
Leaks waste water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An inexpensive washer is usually enough to stop them.
- Water your lawn only when it needs it.
Watering on a regular schedule doesn't allow for cool spells or rainfall, which reduces the need for watering. Step on some grass. If it springs back up when you move your foot, it doesn't need water.
- Deep-soak your lawn.
When you do water your lawn, water it long enough for water to seep down to the roots where it is needed. A light sprinkling that sits on the surface will simply evaporate and be wasted.
- Water during the cool parts of the day.
Early morning is better than dusk since it helps prevent the growth of fungus.
- Don't water the gutter.
Position your sprinklers so that water lands on your lawn or garden, not in areas where it does no good. Also, avoid watering on windy days when much of your water may be carried off to the streets and sidewalks.
- Plant drought-resistant trees and plants.
Many beautiful trees and plants thrive without irrigation.
- Put a layer of mulch around trees and plants.
Mulch slows the evaporation of moisture.
- Use a broom to clean driveways, sidewalks and steps.
Using a hose wastes hundreds and hundreds of gallons of water.
- Don't run the hose while washing your car.
Soap down your car from a pail of soapy water. Use a hose only to rinse it off.
- Tell your children not to play with the hose and sprinklers.
Children love to play under a hose or sprinkler on a hot day. Unfortunately, this practice is extremely wasteful of precious water and should be discouraged.
- Check for leaks in pipes, hoses faucets and couplings.
Leaks outside the house are easier to ignore since they don't mess up the floor or keep you awake at night. However, they can be even more wasteful than inside water leaks, especially when they occur on your main waterline.