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Toilet to tap: a fluid topic in Washington County

Using reclaimed wastewater still a tough sell here

COURTESY: CLEAN WATER SERVICES  - A judge tastes a beer brewed for the 2015 Pure Water Brew competition sponsored by Clean Water Services, the Washington County sewer and storm drainage utility. Clean Water Services made treated, purified water available to home brewers for the competition. Despite public concern for the environment — and well-publicized competitions to brew beer from treated sewage — don’t expect Portland or its suburbs to resort anytime soon to widespread reuse of water, for drinking or other domestic uses.

That was the consensus of area water authorities at a recent regional water forum sponsored jointly by the City Club of Portland and the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.

Brian Wegener, advocacy manager for Tualatin Riverkeepers, raised the issue at the forum, noting that the region is spending millions to treat wastewater, most of it discharged into rivers, while officials consider developing future water sources. Wegener called for recycling and reuse of water to be added to local conservation measures.

“It seems we are consuming beyond our means,” he said. “We should be using it (treated wastewater) as a primary supply.”

But water officials said there are important reasons why it’s not a priority right now, such as abundant supplies of fresh

water and the added costs of delivering treated wastewater to households and businesses.

Plus there is the matter of public acceptance.

“We just haven’t gotten over the ‘ick’ factor,” said Karin Power, a lawyer for The Freshwater Trust and a Milwaukie city councilor.

Milwaukie has asked about the possibility, Power said, but isn’t convinced it’s viable now.

“It seems to make sense that if you require only a couple of additional steps, we could be reusing this water directly,” she said. “Other countries, such as Singapore, have reached the point where they absolutely have to. They have engaged in massively expensive public campaigns to get people to drink it.

“But we do not have the kind of scarcity problem that California is running into,” Power said. “Until we are boxed into doing that kind of innovative work, I just don’t know if spending public dollars on that next step makes sense.”COURTESY: CLEAN WATER SERVICES  - Some of the beers sampled by judges in the second-annual Pure Water Brew competition last year.

Kevin Hanway, Hillsboro’s water director, noted that the Tualatin River needs the augmented flow it gets from wastewater treated by Clean Water Services, the agency that serves most of Washington County.

“What we have determined in joint planning with Clean Water Services ... is that the best place for that treated effluent to go is back into the river to help maintain its water quality,” Hanway said.

“In addition,” he said, “just because of the economics associated with power and a secondary pipe system that is needed for delivering that water to customers, it’s much more economical to tap these other sources that are still providing an abundant supply without having an impact on in-stream needs.”

Clean Water Services does treat about 100 million gallons annually to the higher standards. That’s primarily used to irrigate sports fields and golf courses and recharge wetlands, since it’s cheaper than providing fresh water. About 400 gallons of that water was used in highly publicized beer-brewing contests in 2014 and 2015.

But that 100 million gallons is less than two days’ worth of the wastewater treated by Clean Water Services plants in Durham, Forest Grove, Hillsboro and Rock Creek.COURTESY: CLEAN WATER SERVICES  - Canned beer brewed from water treated by Clean Water Services in Washington County.

Singapore, an island city-state in Asia, purifies about twice as much wastewater daily to the highest standards — but it’s consumed mostly in high-technology manufacturing.

Michael Stuhr, director of the Portland Water Bureau, said such reuse is technically feasible, but unfeasible economically.

“The consensus was that for the Northwest and Northeast, it is unsellable,” Stuhr said.

“Ultimately, we have to convince ratepayers to pay for it. Now maybe all of you would be willing to drink such water at a much higher cost. In Portland’s case, 80 percent of our customers receive their water from gravity — which is free.

“If I have to start pumping that through a plant,” Stuhr said, “you just watch the rates go through the roof — never mind the ‘ick’ factor.”

In its discharge permit pending before the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Clean Water Services will be required to develop plans for use of recycled water and highly purified water.

“I think there are opportunities where that does make sense,” said Mark Knutson, chief executive of the Tualatin Valley Water District. “But because it’s costly to produce it, there are only certain areas where it does make sense to be able to reclaim wastewater.”

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