Inside a water treatment plant in north Reno, Nev., on a recent Wednesday, recycled wastewater was running beneath a floor grate inside a small testing room. Inside the space is a system of serpentine-like PVC pipes with 19 different ports, used to test water samples at different intervals.
“It’s about halfway through the treatment process at the wastewater facility,” said Lydia Teel, an engineer with the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, or TMWA, which serves about 440,000 people in the greater Reno area. “So, it’s clean, but there’s still some color, there’s bacteria in it, some solids.”
Teel spearheads a demonstration project called OneWater Nevada, an effort to show that the region can recycle the water that flushes down people’s toilets and shower drains and – eventually – turn it back into clean, pure drinking water flowing from faucets, effectively creating a new water resource. The project is a collaboration between TMWA, the cities of Reno and Sparks, the University of Nevada, Reno, Washoe County, and the Western Regional Water Commission.
The Reno area doesn’t have a history of threatened water supplies, and historic snowfall this past winter eased drought conditions in Nevada and across parts of the Mountain West. But that could shift quickly with climate change.
“We don’t know if we would have years-long droughts,” Teel said. “We don’t know if there could be a catastrophic fire on the Truckee River where the quality is decreased for a period of time.”
Teel said many advanced purified water facilities are in coastal communities and use a technology called reverse osmosis. But that process, she noted, generates brine that gets sent to the ocean.
“We don’t have that luxury here – we wouldn’t know what to do with the brine,” she explained.
That’s why Teel and her colleagues tried a new technology that uses a combination of charcoal filtering and adding ozone. After years of tests beginning in 2017, they’ve proven their recycled wastewater meets national and state safe drinking water standards.
Now, project leaders are designing a large-scale facility that’s scheduled to break ground next year. Teel says the facility will cost about $120 million to build, and “a few million more” to operate each year.
“People are watching us because we are an inland community,” she said. “And we’re really breaking ground as one of the first communities in the nation to be looking at technology like this.”
Similar projects are planned in the fast-growing Mountain West. This year, Colorado became the first state to adopt regulations for direct potable reuse, the process of treating wastewater and sending it to people’s taps without an environmental buffer like ground or surface water.
The city of South Jordan, Utah, is testing purifying its wastewater to safe drinking levels. Officials say it’s for demonstration and education only, and to find out if that’d be a viable option in the future if needed.
Reno’s treated water won’t hit people’s taps right away. First, the water will be monitored and used to irrigate nearby alfalfa fields. A year later, it’ll be injected into the groundwater, stored for a few years, extracted, and tested some more.
“Then when we all feel comfortable, the public feels comfortable, then we can open the door of providing it to the public for potable use,” Teel said.
Making consumers feel comfortable might be the biggest hurdle, Teel admitted. That’s why the project team is demonstrating its purification system at community events, using the inside of a semi-trailer as a mobile treatment lab.
That can have a big impact on the public, said Mark Millan, founder of Data Instincts, which does public outreach for recycled water projects across the West, including OneWater Nevada.
“When people start to really understand the purification process, they almost think, ‘Oh, gosh, I’d rather have this water than bottled water because it is so clean,’” Millan said.
Drinking recycled wastewater is nothing new. Newsha Ajami, chief development officer for research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area, often reminds people that it’s been done for decades, starting with astronauts in space.
“What happens in the spaceships is they recycle their urine and other water they use and drink it,” she said. “So, the technology has been there for a long time.”
Ajami said purification projects will become even more important in the future, especially in the arid West where supplies can run dry.
“The more we can do this at every scale, the less we need to take out of the environment,” she said. “So, in that way, we can also protect our ecosystem. So, I would say, reuse and recycling at every scale is going to be part of our resilient water resilience portfolio in the future.”
Back at the testing room in Reno, Teel said their three pilot trailers were producing more than 14,000 gallons of advanced purified water per day. The full-scale plant will produce up to 2 million a day. To put that into context, Reno area residents use more than 100 million gallons of water daily in the summertime, according to Teel.
“To have another resource as a part of our drinking water in this area is huge,” she said. “You never know what’s in the future, and it’s just another drop in the bucket for us.”
Teel said the Reno area could have underground storage of waste-turned-clean drinking water as early as 2029.
As a note of disclosure, Truckee Meadows Water Authority is a business sponsor of KUNR.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.