No water is wastewater: A refrain for World Water Day

Post by Jenny Seifert


Photo Credit: USDA

No water is wastewater. This is how a group of water professionals from Dane County recently agreed we could think locally about the global theme of this year’s World Water Day: wastewater.

We were sitting around a table at Aldo’s Café on the UW-Madison campus brainstorming how to celebrate the annual honoring of this vital resource, which takes place every March 22nd. We kept coming back to the fact that water never really goes away, as the term wastewater might imply – rather, it merely has wasted potential.

The water cycle is an unending process of recycling. Our lakes and streams evaporate and return as rain or snow. Water flushed away – whether down a storm drain, farm field or toilet – eventually comes back around as someone’s drinking water.

This flushed-away water is often seen as a problem. It must be treated or prevented, so it doesn’t contaminate other water, like our lakes and aquifers.

But what if, instead, wastewater was seen as an equally valuable phase of the cycle, and all we needed to do was harness its potential? (Of course, this is no argument against treating and preventing wastewater!)

This is not a new idea, of course. Wastewater proponents already encourage using rain barrels and greywater for gardens, municipal wastewater for green spaces, and industrial or agricultural discharge for cooling systems or irrigation. The idea just needs more champions.

The global organizer of World Water Day, the United Nations, is focused on ensuring all wastewater from homes, cities, industry and agriculture is treated and/or reused, in addition to reducing the amount of it we create in the first place.

What could this mean for us in Dane County? Many things, but one possibility rife with potential is recovering phosphorus, an essential nutrient, from our lakes, rivers and soils.

The problem phosphorus poses for us is increasingly common knowledge. We simply have too much of it in our soils and waters, an excess due primarily to agricultural fertilizers and manure and, to a lesser extent thanks to a mix of technology and regulations, urban sources like leaf litter and sewage.

We all know the result: smelly and sometimes toxic algal blooms in lakes, which can kill fish, ruin recreation and threaten public health.

Recent research from UW-Madison scientists shows that the most critical thing we can do to clean up our lakes and rivers is to stop phosphorus from leaking into them and mine what is already there. Herein lie the opportunities for making the water that flows off our lands and into our lakes waste free.

The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative warns, without changes to the system, the world could run out of phosphorus, a finite resource, sometime between 2035 and 2075. Currently, Morocco supplies three-quarters of the world’s phosphorus, and four-fifths of what is mined is wasted or lost due to inefficiencies, including its over-application as a fertilizer.

While nary an economist nor policy analyst thinks the world will actually run out of phosphorus – rather, it will just get more expensive – this impending crisis nonetheless underscores the valuable role Dane County, and greater Wisconsin, could play in sustaining the world’s food supply while sustaining its own waters.

We could do this by finding ways to extract our excess phosphorus from the land-to-water waste stream and recycle it for use in places that need it.

As a writer, I am in no position to imagine or prescribe how we do that. But we are a clever and entrepreneurial species, and I am sure there are many humans out there equipped to come up with solutions.

Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is already trying with a phosphorus harvesting system that extracts the nutrient from sewage and turns it into fertilizer pellets. Dane County’s ongoing effort to improve its manure digesters with phosphorus-straining chemical treatments that enable the nutrient’s reuse is another stab at a solution.

More solutions will be needed, however. And if we, as a society, value clean water, as survey after survey says we do, supporting further research and innovation is one way we can be part of the solution.

The World Water Day brainstorm ultimately fruited a week of festivities around the county, but we sidelined the “no water is wastewater” refrain in favor of a more general tune for water protection. Nonetheless, the refrain is still resonant, and I hope it can inspire local solutions that will change the world and its water.

Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate Project.


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