Forever Unclean? Wastewater is a Viable Solution to Water Quality and Quantity Issues in the US

Unlike other natural resources, such as fossil fuels or crops, there is no substitute for water.[1] Despite this crucial fact, the world’s water supply remains under assault from overuse and pollution.[2] Even as environmental topics such as climate change remain mired in political struggle, water scarcity issues are absent from American political dialogue in many areas of the country.[3] This fact is particularly troubling when one considers that at least 36 U.S. States will have severe water shortages within the next ten years.[4] By 2050, water shortages will affect 70% of U.S. counties.[5] Such scarcity will have an enormous impact on the stability of the agricultural and industrial sectors[6] and mandate extreme domestic use restrictions unless significant corrective actions are implemented.[7] Water use is also directly impacted by population growth; as the world’s population continues to grow,[8] water use problems have reached unparalleled heights.[9] Unfortunately, as water consumption grows, stores of usable water remain relatively unchanged.[10]

Water pollution also depletes the usable water supply and is already a significant problem throughout the U.S.[11] Pollution can come from a wide array of sources, the vast majority of which are regulated by the Clean Water Act (CWA).[12] Despite the fact that the CWA has existed for almost 40 years, several American industries continue to pollute at alarming rates. From 2004-09, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other industries violated water pollution laws more than 500,000 times.[13] As pollution issues become more severe throughout the U.S., policymakers need to increase their efforts to clean up the country’s vital water resources.

As states face up to the challenge of alleviating water scarcity and pollution, wastewater management will be a key tool in any proposed solution. Treating wastewater can transform practically unusable water into a valuable water resource that can be made available in every region of the country.[14] Wastewater treatment occurs in two phases. First, primary treatment removes debris and large particles from the water.[15] While an important step, it is insufficient to make the water viable for any significant human use.[16] Secondary treatment, on the other hand, removes harmful bacteria and other contaminants, which makes the wastewater available for a plethora of human uses.[17]

Once treated, reclaimed water can be used in a variety of different ways.[18] Though wastewater that has undergone secondary treatment is not pure enough to be made available for uses that require the most purified water, it has long been used in the agriculture industry to irrigate orchards, vineyards, and a wide array of nonfood crops.[19] In that same vein, municipal reclaimed water can be used to irrigate parks and golf courses.[20] Reclaimed water can also be valuable in the industrial context, where it is used to cool power plants and oil refineries or in mixing concrete or other construction endeavors.[21]

Another major opportunity for the use of reclaimed water is planned indirect potable reuse.[22] This process takes advantage of the natural water purification that occurs by recharging surface and groundwater with reclaimed water.[23] Once this water has been allowed to go through the additional natural cleaning process, it can be extracted for potable use, including drinking.[24] Thus, the wastewater treatment facility only needs to treat water enough to remove harmful contaminants, allowing Mother Nature to finish the process.[25] This method is simple, highly effective, and can be employed almost anywhere.[26]

The plethora of potential uses, coupled with the widespread availability of wastewater should encourage states to take advantage of this often overlooked resource. In the coming decades, the ability to efficiently use and reuse water will be a critical step in ensuring water security throughout the U.S.

— Bryce Blum, Associate 

[1] Brett Hillman, Ellen M. Douglas & David Terkla, An Analysis of the Allocation of Yakima River Water in Terms of Sustainability and Economic Efficiency (2010), 8

[2] See e.g., EPA, Puget Sound Georgia Basin Ecosystem Indicator Report: Marine Species at Risk, 1-2 (Oct. 2006)

[3] Keith Schneider, U.S. Faces Era of Water Scarcity, Circle of Blue WaterNews (July 9, 2008),

[5] Water Supply Shortages, Global Warming Forecasts, (last visited Apr. 3, 2012) .

[6] Joop Steenvoorden, Wastewater Re-use and Groundwater Quality: Introduction, in Wastewater Re-use and Groundwater Quality 1 (Joop Steenvoorden & Theodore Endreny eds. 2003).

[7] Elliot Curry, Water Scarcity and the Recognition of the Human Right to Safe Freshwater, 9 Nw. U. J. Int’l Hum. Rts. 103, 104-05 (2010).

[8] U.S. Census Bureau, World POPClock Projection, (last visited Apr. 3, 2012).

[9] See Ginette Chapman, From Toilet to Tap: The Growing Use of Reclaimed Water and the Legal System’s Response, 47 Ariz. L. Rev. 773, 774 (2005).

[10]Human Appropriation of the World’s Fresh Water Supply, Univ. of Mich. (Jan. 4, 2006),

[11] See Robert W. Adler, The Two Lost Books in the Water Quality Trilogy: The Elusive Objectives of Physical and Biological Integrity, 33 Envtl. L. 29, 48 (2003).

[12] Kenneth H. Mann, Water Pollution: Marine, Pollution Issues (last visited Apr. 3, 2012).

[13] Charles Duhigg, Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering, New York Times (Sept. 12, 2009). See also Sunny Lewis, Factories, Cities Across USA Exceed Water Pollution Limits, Environmental News Service (Mar. 24, 2006),

[14] Chapman, supra note 9, at 776.

[15] See Charleston Water System, Wastewater Treatment (2009) (last visited Apr. 3, 2012); Chapman, supra note 9, at 777.

[16] Water Recycling and Reuse: The Environmental Benefits, EPA (1998),

[17] See Charleston Water System, supra note 15.

[18] See Chapman, supra note 9, at 777.

[19] Chapman, supra note 9, at 778-79.

[20] Water Recycling and Reuse, supra note 16.

[21] Id.

[22] Melon Wedick, Toward Sustainable Water Systems: Potable Reuse of Wastewater 8-9 (UP 502 – Environmental Planning, Dec. 6, 2007), available at

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 9.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

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