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The Curious Case of SoCalians Who Are Okay With Drinking Poo Water

Toilet via Shutterstock
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This week the New York Times checked in with the curious case of San Diegans who are no longer afraid of drinking water that was once in someone's toilet.Back in 1998 when San Diego's water department brought up the idea of using reclaimed water—wastewater that has been treated so that it is safe to drink—the city council refused to even consider the possibility. Residents weren't hot on the idea of so-called "toilet-to-tap" water. Even in 2004 after the idea had time to sink in, 63 percent of San Diego residents were still opposed.

But then a drought came along and biotech leaders wrestling with a water shortage started talking about leaving San Diego. A few years ago the mayor got on board, the city council fell in line and public opinion began to change. By 2011, only 25 percent of residents were opposed to the idea. (The newspaper did find one resident who very unironically referred to the reclaimed water as "the end of the world." Virginia Soderberg, 91, president of the Convair Garden Club in San Diego, told the Times, "I wouldn’t even want my cat to drink it.”) You can take tours of the new treatment plant, which will be supplying water for San Diego residents soon.

To actually taste reclaimed water you'd have to go north to Orange County where the water department went on the offensive and did a much better job convincing folks that reclaimed water is safe—maybe even safer—than other sources of water. Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein took a tour of the reclaimed water plant in Orange County back in 2007 and came back a true believer, even chastising Mayor Villaraigosa for "allowing our precious poo-water to run out to sea." Here was his review of the water at the time:

At the end of the plant tour, I grabbed a plastic cup and filled it with the filtered water. I swirled and sniffed, partly to stall and partly to be a jerk. It had no odor at all. It tasted pretty awesome -- slightly sweet and crisp, almost like Deer Park. After some quick tests, we found out it had a concentration of dissolved solids (minerals) of 13 (San Pellegrino has 1,109) and a pH balance of 6.4 (San Pellegrino is 7.7) -- making it light and tasteless. Once the department adds some limestone and puts it into the aquifer, the water should end up a little heavier and less acidic. Right now it's young, like an unaged Chateau Palmer.
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This kind of water is more expensive than groundwater (but less expensive than desalination) and getting over the public's psychological barrier of drinking water is obviously a chore. But the Times points out that San Diego and Orange County are just ahead of the curve. Other water departments around the country—especially those suffering from drought and worried about depleting groundwater—are looking into the idea of turning reclaimed water. Yes, one day we could all be drinking formerly-poopy water.