Opinion: Simple ways to lighten the load on our water treatment plants
By John Crisman
Water scarcity and conservation continues to be top of mind for many of us living in California, especially after the California Senate approved a plan to lower home water use, reducing the standard to 47 gallons per person per day starting in 2025, and 42 gallons per person per day beginning in 2030.
The federal government is looking at this issue as well, and the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden in August includes $4 billion for water management and conservation for the Colorado River Basin, which supplies roughly a third of all water to Southern California and other regions. Although it may be a start in further addressing our water issue, it typically takes about three to four years for such money to reach its destination.
Hence, many are asking what we can do now to enhance our water conservation efforts and be better stewards of this precious resource.
In the tri-county region, we have historically done well at reducing water use. Locals have moved toward more water-efficient appliances and substituted toilets and showers with low-flow alternatives. In the Santa Barbara area, our communities have grown, yet water use has held steady since 2013.
However, this creates a unique challenge for those in the wastewater industry. As we use less water, the water that leaves our homes as wastewater is more concentrated. The pandemic exacerbated the problem because we were washing our hands thoroughly with extra soap. The more we use soap that contains cleaning agents such as surfactants, the more difficult and expensive it is to treat that water before it can be used for irrigation or discharged into the ocean.
The wastewater management industry constantly seeks better solutions to treat water with higher waste concentrations. Some solutions the industry uses include:
• Bioaugmentation or probiotics: Adding specific pollutant-biodegrading microorganisms into the water enhances microbes’ ability to biodegrade contaminants, while adding good microbes decreases sludge and helps eliminate potentially harmful nutrients.
• Chemical addition: Polymers and coagulants help remove contaminants early in the treatment facility, reducing the load on the biological treatment process.
• Nanobubbles: A newer solution uses nanobubble generators, which inject billions of air bubbles 2,500 times smaller than a grain of salt to remove contaminants like surfactants, reduce pathogens, break apart biofilm and improve water quality without chemicals.
• Enzymes: By breaking down and altering contaminants into benign, biodegradable parts, enzymes eliminate or reduce water toxicity.
As the wastewater industry continues to deploy all the tools it has to treat wastewater properly, there are additional steps you can take to decrease the effects of the drought and adapt to our new environment. By making small behavioral changes, consumers can limit the contaminants in wastewater.
I offer two simple recommendations:
• One way to protect our water is by reading and following the instructions when using laundry and dishwashing detergent as well as personal care products such as shampoo and body wash. Use the appropriate amount of soap and not more. Additionally, it is important not to pour excess or leftover detergents or soaps down the drain. Instead, properly dispose of the surplus at household hazardous waste collection sites such as UCSB.
• Another pandemic-related problem is an uptick in disposable wipes being flushed down toilets. For example, the workers at WSSC Water, which serves 1.8 million residents in the Maryland suburbs, removed about 700 tons of wipes in 2020 — a 100-ton increase versus the previous year — at its largest wastewater pumping station. Many premoistened wipes claim to be flushable but pose many challenges for those in the water treatment industry. We suggest not flushing them down the toilet.
These two simple tips can aid the water treatment process and strengthen our commitment to being model stewards of one of our most precious resources: water.
• John Crisman is a Santa Barbara County resident and a senior water process engineer at Moleaer, a water treatment company based in Carson.