Drinking Water in Toilets

Those who remember comic Bob Newhart’s skits probably recall his famous rendition of Sir Walter Raleigh calling back to England on the not yet invented telephone and telling the queen that he had discovered tobacco. He tries to explain how it is used, and really struggles with making it sound attractive. This may have been an inspiration for many anti-tobacco campaigns, and we need a similar skit about how we treat water. Imagine trying to explain to some space traveler from afar that we spend money to protect our water supplies, expend extreme sums to treat water to make it drinkable, then put more of that water into toilets to convey wastes than we actually consume as potable water. It is hard to envision any explanation as being acceptable. Yet that is exactly what we do, despite existing alternatives, some of which are in use in other countries now. We really need some enlightened leadership to move our water management practices onto more sound ground.

The regulations governing the provision of drinking water are fairly extensive and strict. The water supplied to people for consumption is largely quite safe, despite the occasional hiccup like recent examples in Toledo Ohio and Flint Michigan. Those incidents should not be downplayed, but the public discussion should not focus on details, but rather look at the big picture. Source water protection is important, as is proper treatment, but what often gets forgotten is the distribution system. And that distribution system is grossly antiquated in much of the United States. By having just one intake source per dwelling, we have to receive only the best quality water. But if that distribution system has contaminants built into it, as with lead or copper pipes, we have to load the drinking water up with compounds that adjust the pH, coat the pipes and limit leaching of contaminants. Where the water sits for an extended time in the pipe, due to uneven demand, we have to make sure there is enough disinfectant present to keep bacteria from growing. There is a better solution.

If we had a new, smaller, pipe system to supply water for drinking, cooking and washing, the older pipe system could be used to supply less well treated water for toilet use and perhaps irrigation. There would be a cost to the extra infrastructure, but it could solve a lot of problems with current water quality and split water use in a way that would reduce treatment costs overall. Some places outside the USA now have dyed water coming into dwellings in one pipe for use in toilets, while drinking water is brought to taps separately. Recycling would mean less demand, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Utilities struggle to provide enough safe drinking water at times, especially during droughts, and we could ease that burden if we reduced the amount of high quality water that we literally flush down the toilet.

What’s next? Stocking toilets for fishing?