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The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article in their Real Estate section titled, “Sewer to Spigot: Recycled Water.” Los Angeles, San Diego and Miami-Dade all plan to recycling billions of gallons wastewater to use for drinking water.

As someone who’s been working with wastewater treatment for years, I’ve long known that it’s doable to turn treated wastewater effluent to drinking water. Believe me, if Mississippi River water can be treated to drinking water levels, getting treated wastewater to meet drinking water standards should be a piece of cake.

Cities haven’t moved forward with direct potable recycling in the past for two major reasons. First, the cost has been prohibitive. But increased population combined with water shortages, and improved technology have brought costs more in line. Second, the “yuck” factor made it politically impossible to fund a direct potable reuse project. People just didn’t want to drink that stuff.

Many people don’t realize that they are already drinking recycled wastewater. Most large cities have surface water sources–lakes and rivers. And most of these surface waters receive discharges from wastewater treatment plants. There might only be a short distance between the treated wastewater discharge and the drinking water intake.

Those who get their water from underground aquifers might have more to complain about. But we can only pull water from the aquifers for so long at increasing volumes before we’ll need to supplement that source.

I think we’ll all eventually be drinking some form of recycled wastewater–and we’ll have to trust the plant operators and the technology. Do you think we can get past “yuck?” We might have to.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) offers a free online Water Quality course.   

The following modules are included:

Introduction to EPA and the Clean Water Act,
• Waterbody Uses,
• Water Quality Criteria,
• Antidegradation,
• Standards Submittal and Approval, and
• Variances, Using Attainability Analyses, Mixing Zones and Other Flexibility Options

The course is interactive and includes links, video clips and quizzes.  It’s designed for people who are NOT water quality experts, though people in the field may find them a good refresher.

To sign up for the course click on EPA Water Science Academy

On May 30, 2008, some of the world’s top economists ( including five Nobel laureates) will finalize a prioritized list of some of the best and worst solutions for the world’s most pressing problems. 

The Copenhagen Consensus panel will look at the costs vs. benefits of almost 50 solutions to worldwide issues.  Bjorn Lomborg, organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus and author of Cool It:  The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming compares a dollar spent on heart disease in a developing nation that does $25 worth of good with the 90 cents worth of good for each dollar spent on carbon mitigation as an example.

Stay tuned as this group determines the best cost/benefit answers to problems ranging from air pollution to public health to trade barriers.  Economists might seem cold when they put a dollar figure on an emotional topic–but finding the best investments to help the planet is their goal.  And if those dollars aren’t spent well, we all lose.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just released the 2008 Report on the Environment.  This 366-page document (printed on recycled paper–or downloadable as a pdf file) offers one-stop-shopping to answer questions about the nation’s environmental trends. 

EPA also provides reports on their various regions in the country. 

EPA explores environmental trends in Air, Water, Land, Human Exposure and Health, and our Ecological Condition.  The report answers 23 questions deemed critical to our nation’s environment–from the issue of greenhouse gas emissions to wetlands to consumable fish to human exposure to environmental contaminants and biological diversity.

Anyone interested in environmental issues should download this free report. 

I just returned from the Florida Water Resources Conference in Tampa.

Important water issues abound.  Everything from droughts and water shortages–to microconstituents–to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the waterways–to sea water desalinization.

One of the first sessions I attended contested the theory that Florida is running out of fresh water.  Computer models predict declining levels in Florida’s underground aquifers.  But some of the actual data shows that water levels have stabilized.

Many Florida cities have water restrictions in place–and reclaimed water is used in many areas for both residential and agricultural irrigation.  So it makes sense that we might not be in as bad of shape as the models predict.

Regulatory agencies allocate water to users based on computer models, more so than current data.  After all, they are responsible for making sure we have water years into the future, not just today.  But are they “crying wolf?”  Or protecting us from ourselves?

I usually won’t read a book if I see the movie first.  But I was so touched by the movie version of Into the Wild that I pulled the book from my “not-yet-read” shelf.

Jon Krakauer, author of the spellbinding Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, wrote Into the Wild, a true account of Christopher McCandless‘ trek across the country and into the Alaskan wilderness–where he died.

After graduating with honors from Emory University in 1990, McCandless disappeared from home and dropped his given name to become “Alexander Supertramp” as he headed west.  His ultimate goal–an Alaskan Odyssey–living off the land in the wild. 

McCandless gave his savings to charity, burned his remaining cash and abandoned his car after it was submerged in a flash flood.  Alexander Supertramp hitchhiked and jumped trains on a cross-country journey. He camped at Lake Mead, worked a farm in South Dakota, canoed the Colorado River all the way into Mexico where he got caught in a storm off the coast–then illegally crossed back into the states. 

McCandless lived on the fringes of society–but he deeply affected people he met along his way.  Wayne Westerberg, for whom he worked on a farm.  Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, who travelled around selling used books at flea markets.  Ronald Franz, who lost his wife and child by way of a drunk driver and wanted to adopt McCandless. 

Almost two years later, on April 28, 1992, an electrician named Jim Gallien dropped McCandless at the head of the Stampede Trail in the Alaska Interior.  McCandless walked “into the wild” carrying a 10-pound bag of rice, a 22 rifle, ammunition and some camping supplies.  He survived 112 days as a hunter/gatherer alone near the Alaska Range.  He died, probably from starvation–after eating potentially toxic wild potato seeds that left him ill and too weak to hunt, on August 18.

Emile Hirsch does a wonderful job of portraying McCandless in the movie, Into the Wild, directed by Sean PennThe movie really brings the irony of McCandless’ journey into focus

Yearning for ultimate freedom, McCandless essentially becomes trapped in the wild.  He crosses the mostly frozen Teklanika River on foot to arrive at the abandoned Fairbanks Bus No. 142 that becomes his campsite.  In July he decides to reenter civilization–but the Teklanika, swollen by rain and snow-melt, has become a raging rapid.  (Sadly, had McCandless brought a map to his wilderness, he would have seen that there was a gauging station within hiking distance, complete with a manual tram for crossing the river). 

Looking for complete independence, McCandless later notes in his journal, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” 

This story is so much more than just a tragic tale of a young man who made a fatal error.  The search for excitement, adventure and meaning in life.  The pull of nature–how nature is not always gentle and does not suffer fools lightly.   McCandless’ final photo is a self-portrait, holding a brief note and smiling into the camera:

“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD.  GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

Not everyone agrees with Jon Krakauer’s interpretation of events and sympathy for McCandless.  Many Alaskans believe McCandless was either mentally ill or just foolhardy and unprepared.  And they don’t appreciate Krakauer and Hollywood romanticizing a tragedy–and attracting others to follow in McCandless footsteps. 

Regardles, I was transfixed.  Watch the movie.  Read the book.  Or like me, do both.

 

 

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