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While there is still a reluctance to embrace potable water reuse in the U.S., there is growing acceptance of reuse for nonpotable applications such as toilet flushing and watering lawns.

How can we overcome the challenges associated with the increasingly important practice of recycling wastewater for reuse?

As urban populations grow in cities and towns across the United States, so does the demand for water. At the same time, some municipalities may be facing water scarcity, which is often exacerbated by climate change.

Recycling water for reuse, which involves treating wastewater to the point that it’s safe for nonpotable or even potable applications, can ensure a sustainable water supply, offering a lifeline for municipalities in water-stressed regions.

Yet, while water recycling and reuse programs offer tangible benefits, they also present significant challenges that must be overcome. What are some of the advantages, obstacles, and best practices for implementing effective water reuse and recycling initiatives in municipal settings?

Benefits of Water Reuse and Recycling

One of the primary benefits of water reuse is that it can significantly reduce the demand for natural sources of fresh water. Advanced wastewater treatment technologies such as membrane aerated biofilm reactors (MABR) and membrane bioreactors (MBR) allow wastewater effluent to be used for various applications, including irrigation, industrial processes, dust control, groundwater replenishment, and even as a source of drinking water when disinfected appropriately.

For example, Fluence’s MABR technology, used in its Aspiral™ units, was successfully tested at Stanford University, demonstrating its efficiency in treating wastewater for reuse.

In South Africa, an eThekwini pilot project used Fluence’s Aspiral™ and ultrafiltration technologies to achieve potable water standards from wastewater, going from ‘toilet to tap’. Similarly, Fluence’s Mayan Zvi SUBRE project in Israel, which also uses MABR technology, is another example where treated effluent is used to irrigate avocado fields, showcasing the economic benefits of water reuse in agriculture.

Wherever water is used and wastewater is generated, water recycling can offer a sustainable alternative water supply that helps enhance water security and build resilience in the face of climate variability, population growth, and other pressures.

In China, several reuse projects have utilized Fluence’s technology to treat and recycle wastewater, contributing to water sustainability in urban and rural areas. Treating wastewater for reuse can help prevent environmental degradation because it reduces the volume of wastewater discharged into fresh water and coastal bodies of water, minimizing pollution and protecting aquatic ecosystems and critical drinking water supplies. Because it reduces the need for water extraction, it can also help protect sensitive ecosystems such as wetlands.

Recycling water for reuse can help municipalities achieve long-term cost savings by reducing the need to pump or transport water from its source to the water treatment facility, along with associated energy costs. Recycling wastewater for reuse can bring in additional revenue streams from the sale of recycled water.

Modern treatment processes can also recover valuable resources from industrial wastewater, such as nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) for fertilizers and biogas for energy production, providing economic and environmental benefits.

Aspiral™ Wastewater Treatment Plant

Fluence’s Aspiral™ wastewater treatment plant efficiently contributes to municipal water reuse programs by treating wastewater to high standards, enabling safe and sustainable water recycling.

According to a recent study, one of the biggest obstacles to water reuse is public perception and lack of acceptance. The study, which surveyed 203 participants between ages 18 and 60 in the Southeastern United States, found that participants were more willing to use recycled water for applications such as irrigating lawns and nonfood crops, flushing toilets, or firefighting than for irrigating edible crops or livestock feed. They were also reluctant to use recycled water for any applications that required direct human contact or where the water could be ingested. Only 8% of the respondents were willing to use recycled water for drinking.

Effective communication and education are essential components of improving public awareness of the safety and benefits of recycling wastewater to gain public trust and overcome the skepticism often associated with it.

Recycling water for reuse may require significant investment to build or upgrade wastewater treatment facilities, distribution systems, and monitoring technologies. Some advanced treatment processes used in water recycling programs — such as membrane filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection — may require specialized knowledge and ongoing maintenance, which can pose an additional challenge for municipalities that lack the internal capacity to manage these systems effectively.

To ensure the treatment facility meets complex regulatory requirements and complies with stringent health and safety standards, maintaining consistent water quality and ensuring the safety of recycled water is paramount. This involves rigorous monitoring, testing, and management to prevent contamination and protect public health.

While lack of funding or technical expertise may be a stumbling block, creative financing solutions such as Fluence’s Water Management Services or build-own-operate (BOO) contracts can help municipalities overcome these challenges, often with no initial capital out of pocket.

Best Practices for Implementing Water Reuse

To be effective, a water reuse program requires careful planning and adherence to a few basic guidelines and best practices as outlined below:

  • Stakeholder engagement: When planning a water reuse program, it’s important to engage all stakeholders, including government agencies, industry, community groups, and the public to build consensus and address any concerns that may arise.
  • Public education and outreach: Effective communication strategies are essential to educate the public about the safety, benefits, and necessity of water reuse, and to dispel any negativity or skepticism associated with recycling wastewater for reuse. Transparent information about the treatment processes and safety measures that will be implemented can help build confidence and overcome any resistance to the project.
  • Robust regulatory framework: Developing and enforcing clear regulations and standards for water reuse ensures consistent quality and safety, while collaboration between federal, state, and local agencies can streamline regulatory processes.
  • Investment in technology and infrastructure: For water reuse to be efficient and effective, municipalities must invest in innovative treatment technologies and infrastructure. Municipalities can finance water reuse projects by tapping into a wide range of sources, including government grants, public-private partnerships, and lease agreements.
  • Adaptive management and continuous improvement: Implementing a water reuse program is an ongoing process that needs to be regularly reviewed, and where necessary, adapted to improve efficiency or respond to emerging challenges.
  • Integrated water resource management (IWRM): Water reuse can support an integrated approach to water management that includes other water supply and conservation strategies to ensure the sustainable use of all water resources.

Water reuse and recycling is an essential component of sustainable water management due to the benefits it offers, including enhanced water security, environmental protection, and cost savings. However, municipalities still face significant challenges related to public perception, regulatory compliance, and the technical complexity of water reuse systems. By adopting best practices such as stakeholder engagement, public education, and robust regulation — as well as investing in infrastructure and striving to continually improve efficiency — cities can successfully implement water reuse programs and secure a sustainable water future for their communities.

Contact Fluence to learn how our innovative water reuse technologies and our affordable financing solutions can improve water security for both urban and rural communities.

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