For most of human history, running out of water was a real risk, and one that wasn’t easily ignored. When your next glass of water or the ability to irrigate your crops comes from the local well or river, it’s hard to forget water is a finite resource. As Ben Franklin put it, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

Today, we’ve lost that direct connection. We turn on the faucet and clean water comes out. That makes it easy to take our water resources for granted, despite water shortages becoming more common throughout the U.S.

Water Treatment 101

Many communities in central California, the Southwest and the Great Plains already know what it means to live with scarce water resources. As drought, flooding and climate change continue to stress our aging water and wastewater systems, more of us will experience water shortages.

Under these circumstances, educating people about the value of water and water reuse becomes essential. No one is too young or too old to benefit from understanding where clean water comes from.

Schoolchildren enjoy learning about the water cycle, including the basics of water treatment. College students and adults usually know very little about wastewater treatment and are eager to get a glimpse of the engineering behind it.

Waste Not, Want Not

Managing our water supply requires a twofold approach. We need to waste less clean water, and we need to reuse more wastewater. Wasting less clean water is the easy part — take shorter showers, run only full loads of laundry and water the lawn less frequently.

Water reuse can be a harder sell. Few people understand how water and wastewater treatment works, and phrases like “toilet to tap” have only increased the ick factor. So we have to start by clearing up misconceptions.

Using the term “closed-loop system” instead of “toilet to tap” is a start. We also can explain that not all wastewater comes from the toilet. Most of it, in fact, comes from showering and other household activities that leave it relatively clean. But the dirtier it is, the more treatment it undergoes. Above all, before it can be considered for reuse, the water is disinfected.

For those of us who work in water planning, this all goes without saying. For almost everyone else, it’s more or less a mystery. Clearing up the confusion is the first step in convincing people that water reuse is an acceptable means of water conservation.

Kerrie Greenfelder, PE, DBIA, is a municipal water department manager at Burns & McDonnell. She has more than two decades of experience in design-build for water/wastewater treatment, and in landfill design and construction. She's been involved in providing design and management for design-build projects for a variety of municipal, public, industrial and federal clients. She is an active leader with the Water Environment Federation (WEF), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers (KSPE).