Toilet to Tap: Proposed plan to beat California’s drought

California’s record drought is so severe that Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January, and now halfway through the year the problem won’t abate. The situation is dire. And while such activities as drought shaming make for enjoyable spectator sports, they do little to solve the actual problem.

Californians were hoping for a little respite in the form of the rainstorms that flooded Texas in May, but no such luck. So with no water from the heavens, it’s back to the drawing board to try and jerry-rig a man-made solution. The idea of the moment: direct potable reuse, or, as it is more commonly known, turning sewage into drinking water. Here’s everything you need to know about the process, including its benefits. (Yes, there are some.)

How direct potable reuse works

This is not a new technology. In fact, nonpotable reuse—the process of treating sewage for crop irrigation or maintaining parks—has been in use for a while. Through a three-step filtration process, it’s possible to purify wastewater taken from treatment plants. The result, advocates say, is H20 that is more pure than many bottled waters. But it’s doubtful the positive results will satisfy those with weak stomachs.

The benefits

While “toilet to tap” (a term coined by opponents of the plan), may not have the same ring to it as “farm to table,” its proponents in California and elsewhere are serious about its benefits. The biggest drawback to the method, of course, is what’s called the “yuck factor.” Regular folks simply can’t wrap their minds around drinking water that comes from sewage, and who can blame them? However, this process was implemented to successful effect in parched Namibia and in certain drought-prone Texas cities like Wichita Falls.

The likelihood of potable reuse as a drought solution in California

This current drought season isn’t the first time the idea of potable reuse has come up in California. People were proposing it as early as 1994, and the idea was torpedoed for the obvious reason: people thought it was too gross. Those who are still sickened by the thought needn’t worry—there are plenty of opponents today as there were in the ‘90s, so any implementation faces a huge uphill battle.

In the end, what’s obvious is that direct potable reuse is more than just a yucky idea dreamt up by a fetishist; it has proven benefits. That begs the question that if California can work up a solution to purifying what’s in the toilet via a complex filtration process, what, exactly, is stopping its 11 desalination plants from effectively purifying seawater?