Expert Report

Water Reuse: Potential for Expanding the Nation's Water Supply through Reuse of Municipal Wastewater (2012)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Report in Brief >>

Q&A with the Chair >>

Expanding water reuse—the use of treated wastewater for beneficial purposes including irrigation, industrial uses, and drinking water augmentation—could significantly increase the nation’s total available water resources, this new report finds. A portfolio of treatment options is available to mitigate water quality issues in reclaimed water, and new analysis suggests the risk of exposure to certain microbial and chemical contaminants from drinking reclaimed water does not appear to be any higher than the risk experienced in at least some current drinking water treatment systems and may be orders of magnitude lower. Adjustments to the federal regulatory framework could enhance public health protection for both planned and unplanned (or de facto) reuse, and increase public confidence in water reuse.

Key Messages

  • Approximately 12 billion gallons of municipal wastewater effluent is discharged each day to an ocean or estuary out of the 32 billion gallons per day discharged nationwide. Reusing these coastal discharges would directly augment available water resources (equivalent to 6 percent of the estimated total U.S. water use, or 27 percent of public supply). Inland effluent discharges may also be available for water reuse, although extensive reuse has the potential to affect the water supply of downstream users and ecosystems in water-limited settings.
  • De facto reuse of treated wastewater to augment drinking water supplies—for example, when a drinking water system uses a water supply that receives upstream wastewater discharges—is common in many of the nation's water systems. A systematic analysis of the extent of effluent contributions to potable water supplies has not been made in the United States for over 30 years.
  • A portfolio of treatment options, including engineered and managed natural treatment processes, exists to mitigate microbial and chemical contaminants in reclaimed water. Numerous process combinations can be tailored to meet specific product water quality objectives.
  • To ensure the quality of reclaimed water, treatment systems should include multiple barriers for pathogens that cause waterborne diseases to strengthen the reliability of contaminant removal, and should employ diverse combinations of technologies to address a broad variety of contaminants. Reclamation facilities should develop monitoring and operational plans to respond to variability, equipment malfunctions, and operator error to ensure that reclaimed water meets the appropriate quality standards for its use.
  • In nearly all current potable water reuse systems (water reuse to augment drinking water supplies), water is discharged after treatment to an aquifer, stream, or a wetland to provide a buffer between water treatment and consumption. Environmental buffers can further remove contaminant levels such as pathogens from the water and provide additional retention time. However, the science necessary to design engineered natural systems to provide a uniform level of public health protection is not available at present.
  • It cannot be demonstrated that natural barriers provide any protection that is not also available by engineered processes. Environmental buffers can be useful elements that should be considered along with other processes and management actions in the design of potable reuse projects, but are not essential elements to achieve quality assurance.
  • Modern technology allows the detection of chemical and biological contaminants at extremely low levels, but the detection of a contaminant in reclaimed water does not, in and of itself, indicate a significant risk. Information on the dose of a contaminant required to cause health effects allows scientists to determine if the level of contaminant is significant.
  • The committee compared the estimated risks of a conventional drinking water source that contains a small percentage of treated wastewater against the estimated risks of two different potable reuse scenarios considering 24 chemical and four microbial contaminants. The analysis suggests that the risk of contaminant exposure in the two planned potable reuse scenarios does not exceed the risk encountered from existing water supplies, and may be orders of magnitude lower.
  • When assessing risks associated with reclaimed water, the potential for failures in reliability and unintended uses also needs to be assessed and mitigated. A better understanding of treatment system performance is needed to quantify the uncertainty in risk assessments of potable and nonpotable water reuse projects.
  • The financial costs of water reuse vary widely because they depend on site-specific factors, including the location, water quality objectives, and method of treatment applied. To determine the most socially, environmentally, and economically feasible water supply option, the non-monetized costs and benefits of reuse projects should also be considered.
  • State regulations for nonpotable reuse are not uniform across the country, and no state water reuse regulations or guidelines for nonpotable reuse are based on rigorous risk assessment methodology. Federal regulations would not only provide a uniform minimum standard of protection but would also increase public confidence that water reuse does not compromise public health. This process should be informed by scientific research on potential nonpotable reuse applications and practices, which would require resources beyond the reach of most states.
  • Federal efforts to address potential exposure to wastewater contaminants will become increasingly important as water reuse accounts for a larger share of potable supplies. The Safe Drinking Water Act does not include specific requirements for treatment or monitoring when municipal wastewater effluent is an important component of source water.
  • The committee identified 14 water reuse research priorities in the areas of health, social, and environmental issues, and performance and quality assurance. These research priorities have the potential to advance the safe, reliable, and cost-effective reuse of municipal wastewater where traditional sources are inadequate.

About this Report

Primary Board:

Water Science and Technology Board

Sponsor(s):

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the National Science Foundation; the National Water Research Institute; the Centers for Disease Control; Water Research Foundation; Orange County Water District; Orange County Sanitation District; Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; Irvine Ranch Water District; West Basin Water District; Inland Empire Utilities Agency; Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Los Angeles County Sanitation District; Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency