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Water reuse can be a solution to scarcity, experts say

March 26, 2013

Water is a scarce resource in the West. Phoenix and Los Angeles newspapers made headlines this month for publishing competing opinion pieces about which city’s water supply is less sustainable.

Almost 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico rely on the Colorado River – for drinking water, agriculture, and recreation and industrial use – but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says it’s drying up. By any measure, even in the best-case scenario, we face a future shortage in water supply.

Finding supplies to meet demand

What if we found water that can be reused, and matched it with industrial and agricultural consumers who need that water?

Last fall, Arizona State University announced a partnership with CH2M HILL and Intel on a program called WaterMatch, designed to make such reuse possible. The university is contributing data on wastewater treatment plants while also conducting research into the uses and benefits of WaterMatch.

This public-private partnership – together with others like it across the United States – is creating the data infrastructure to help connect supply with demand.

Obstacles to development

There are obstacles to reusing wastewater, however, that can’t be overcome by matchmaking alone. Technological solutions are needed. The water must be free of pharmaceuticals and nanomaterials that could affect human health. It should also be free of salts or other byproducts that could damage equipment or harm wildlife. The byproducts removed from wastewater must be disposed of or used in some way.

In addition, there are considerations of cost, regulation and public perception. Many find it distasteful to reuse wastewater, especially if that wastewater is intended for reuse as drinking water.

Focus on solutions

This week the university hosts a gathering of experts to discuss how the Colorado River states can increase water reuse in farming, municipal, industrial and environmental applications. Keynotes will be presented by Carly Jerla, lead author of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report that projects a Colorado River water shortage, and Robert Glennon, best-selling author of "Unquenchable."

The event, "Research Frontiers in Water Use," is the first to result from ASU’s WaterMatch partnership with CH2M HILL and Intel. While the event is closed to the public, the gathering of prominent experts highlights ASU’s position as a center of knowledge on issues of water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin.

John Sabo, research development director for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, is chair of the event’s steering committee. “This is a real opportunity for ASU to do what it does so well – bring together people with diverse expertise, get them all at the table, and focus on solutions.”

Research Frontiers in Water Reuse will be held at the ASU Tempe campus March 26-27, 2013. The event is sponsored by CH2M HILL and Intel, together with ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City and the Global Institute of Sustainability.