Water reclamation regulations stifle innovation in conservation
Drought and climate change have reduced freshwater supplies around the world and forced us to look at ways to conserve water resources. An immediate solution is to implement aggressive on-site water reclamation. This involves capturing stormwater runoff and/or greywater (drainage from sinks and showers, cooling towers, etc) to use for non-drinking purposes such as toilet flushing or irrigation. Reclamation can be an easy to implement conservation program, so why don’t more property owners do it?
#1) Owners aren’t always allowed to capture or reuse water onsite.
Stormwater runoffs are usually considered public resources in terms of the law. However greywater—whether from a single-family home, a hotel, or a large corporate campus—is usually subject to very stringent treatment requirements. While there are valid reasons for this, it means that if property owners desire to implement a conservation program, they often face legal obstacles for capturing, treating, and reusing that water—if they’re permitted to do it at all. We need to streamline the approval process. If owners can prove that their reclamation methods pose no public harm, they should be allowed and even encouraged to activate them for the benefit of all.
#2) Regulations for treating reclaimed water are too prescriptive.
If filtration is required in a reclamation system most laws favor the method of reverse osmosis (RO). Filtration is usually required if the water will be used for something other than irrigation. RO was clearly the best technology available when on-site reclamation was in its infancy. Recently, new methods that use nanofiltration membranes or biomimetic technologies have emerged as attractive alternatives due to a longer lifespan, smaller footprints, lower energy use, and simpler operation. But proving to regulators that they are as effective as RO can be a complex, expensive undertaking. These newer methods also cost about twice as much as RO, requiring proof of a shorter payback period to justify the higher purchase price. These hurdles stifle innovation and keep the cost of new technologies prohibitively high.
#3) Fear of liability has led to overly conservative standards.
In countries such as India and Indonesia, owners are permitted to use holding tanks to capture stormwater for immediate reuse, with the excess discharged to sewers after 24 hours to avoid bacterial growth. Though this method has proven to be safe, U.S. laws typically forbid storage without oxygenation in all but the simplest of circumstances (e.g. rain barrels).
We’ve done a terrific job of regulating water quality in the U.S., but our current laws don’t offer enough flexibility for implementing innovative reclamation techniques. Modifying these regulations will help us reduce potable water usage without compromising public safety.