Why Do We Use Drinking Water to Flush Our Toilets?

Jul 24, 2013

The Johnson Foundation is taking a detailed look at how we can transform the nation's water infrastructure.

A wastewater pipe
Credit eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread – located outside Racine - is among the philanthropic groups looking at the social, economic and environmental issues facing the region and the world.

In 2008, its board decided to take on water issues, and recently it published a report on "Catalyzing the Transformation of U.S. Water Infrastructure."

Lynn Broaddus, director of environment programs, says the report is about more than just fixing broken pipes - it explores the intersection between urban water infrastructure and climate change.

For example, climate change is causing us to change our water needs. In some parts of the country, there are increasing droughts and dropping water tables due to too much concrete.

"For the Great Lakes region, it tends to mean more intense rainfalls, roughly the same amount of precipitation but more intense episodes," she says.

Additionally, changes in energy availability will have "huge implications for water infrastructure," Broaddus says.

"The studies and research are showing that one of the best ways to use water while reducing the amount of energy involved is sometimes recycling water, capturing rainwater, but it's also thinking about the right water for the right purpose," she says.

Most of our water is heavily purified so that it's fit for human consumption, which requires a lot of energy and chemicals. But Broaddus says that's not necessary if we're using the water for flushing our toilets and washing cars.

"We don't really need to make that kind of expenditure on that water," she says. "So how to build infrastructure that allows us to be smarter about how we use that water is all apart of that equation, too."

Broaddus says about 20 percent of improvements in how to smartly use water can be done just with being more energy efficient and capturing energy in wastewater.

"To get to that next 80 percent transformation is going to take some serious reimagining and reengineering of how we do things," she says.

The Johnson Foundation's Lynn Broaddus
Credit Susan Bence

The use of grey water - or recycled water - is an option for water needs that don't involve direct human contact, like flushing toilets or in cooling systems. Using the biological energy of our waste is another opportunity. Even recapturing some of the energy used to move and treat water - a big electricity expenditure for municipalities - could help these systems become energy neutral or even energy positive.

Of course, such solutions will require hundreds of billions of dollars to implement, not to mention the buy-in from vast populations. Broaddus says the Johnson Foundation has no illusions that it's the "national messenger" on this issue, but she does hope that it plays a role in bringing together the right people to address it.

"We look at the theory of change: Who are the actors who can most influence those decisions?" she says.

As it turns out, mayors and municipal leaders are critical to implementing such changes. For instance, Racine hopes to make its wastewater treatment energy neutral soon. Additionally, leaders in the wastewater treatment industry and key Congressional staffers will also play big parts in the conversation.

Broaddus says there is a sense of urgency to finding and implementing these solutions.

"We're spending money on a daily and yearly basis and we want to make sure that money is being put to the best use possible and in the way that's going to last us the longest amount of time," she says. "We don't want to be redoing this in 10 years or 20 years. We want it out now for the next 100 years."

The report digging into ways to transform U.S. water infrastructure resulted from the combined knowledge and perspectives of experts who gathered last April at Wingspread. The Johnson Foundation also launched an initiative in 2010 called Charting New Waters.