Exploring Water Reuse Initiatives in US Wastewater Utilities


In the face of escalating water scarcity, heightened environmental awareness, and growing demand for cost-effective water management solutions, the incentives to invest in water reuse have never been more pronounced for American wastewater systems. Wastewater utilities across the nation are increasingly adopting direct and indirect water reuse practices, driven by the dual goals of reducing environmental impact and enhancing water resources. As we navigate through an era marked by climatic unpredictability and finite water resources, the adoption of water reclamation and reuse strategies emerges as an attractive path forward for communities striving to secure a sustainable future.

This article delves into the drivers that incentivize water reuse practices, the regulatory landscape, and the potential challenges that wastewater utilities may face when implementing reuse technologies at their treatment facilities.

Understanding Water Reuse Initiatives

Water reuse represents a transformative approach to water resource management. As climate change disrupts the earth’s water resources, water reuse could be key to sustaining ecosystems, keeping drinking water rates affordable, and protecting the public from water contamination.

Environmental Sustainability

By recycling treated wastewater effluent to supply drinking and non-potable water, communities can decrease their reliance on local surface and groundwater. This strategy preserves freshwater in natural habitats, ensuring that water bodies remain vibrant for the wildlife that depend on them. Moreover, water reclamation plays a crucial role in improving the water quality of lakes, aquifers, and streams by minimizing the volume of wastewater effluent and its associated pollutants released into the environment.

Economic Efficiency

Water scarcity and contamination have tipped the scales for water reuse’s economic case. Utilities that implement water reclamation can achieve significant savings, cutting down on the pumping of freshwater sources and streamlining wastewater treatment expenses. Water demand for non-potable applications, such as landscape irrigation and industrial processes, presents opportunities to utilities to sell reuse water and generate revenue to cover treatment costs. Finally, as the PFAS family of chemicals receives scrutiny from state and federal drinking water regulators, taking advantage of the overlap between PFAS treatment technology and water reuse systems enhances operational efficiency, allowing utilities to address water scarcity and contaminants with a consolidated system.

Public Health Protection

Well-known pollutants and contaminants of emerging concern such as PFAS continue to complicate how we treat wastewater and the public’s perception of what makes water safe. The technologies that make wastewater reuse viable can double as a safeguard for public health. Moreover, the availability of reclaimed water bolsters water security, ensuring communities are better equipped to face drought events. This proactive approach to water management ensures resilience and adaptability in the face of increasing environmental pressures to protect public health.

Current Landscape of Water Reuse

Water reuse’s potential is well researched and practiced in pockets of the US and abroad. However, water reuse regulations are not yet universal, siloing water and wastewater treatment providers within separate regulatory frameworks. For communities and state governments that have proactively implemented water reuse-friendly policies, some have generated annual revenues as high as $7 Million by selling and reusing highly purified wastewater. These programs offset drinking water treatment costs, protect local ecosystems, and provide water for irrigating golf courses, feeding cooling water towers, and even supplying fire protection.

Scottsdale Arizona’s Water Campus

Arizona, where water resources are precious, has become a policy and technological leader in water reuse as it works to satisfy the demands of its residents, agriculture sector, and industries. With as little as 10” of rainfall annually, the state depends on ground and surface water, which are strained by climate change and similar upstream demands. Taking water security into their own hands, cities such as Scottsdale have converted their wastewater reclamation plants into water campuses, where water is tailored for irrigation, industrial processes, and groundwater recharge.

Scottsdale’s Advanced Water Treatment (AWT) facility can treat up to 20 million gallons of recycled water daily. The Scottsdale Water Campus has been practicing indirect potable reuse for over 30 years, recharging local aquifers to combat evaporative water loss and saltwater intrusion. Due primarily to the AWT, Scottsdale has recharged over 70 billion gallons into regional aquifers since 1988.

The reuse water from Scottsdale’s AWT created an opportunity to partner with 23 regional golf courses through a public-private partnership known as the Reclaimed Water Distribution System to contribute sustainable landscape irrigation water to Arizona’s $6 Billion golfing industry. The golf courses value the reuse water to the extent that they pay for water used and infrastructure costs, putting no burden on residential ratepayers. The city is also in the process of gaining permission from the State of Arizona to directly distribute its highly purified water to homes, pioneering direct potable reuse in this desert environment.

The Domino District Non-Potable Reuse Project

New York City has led the world in water and wastewater treatment advancements for over 300 years. Under pressure to provide water for millions and consequently treat their wastewater, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) continues to innovate as population growth and climate change stress this mega-city’s water resources.  

As new developments are built throughout the city, DEP saw an opportunity to meet drinking water demand while reducing the volume of wastewater sent to the sewer. The Domino District Non-Potable Water Reuse Project will be a planned, district-scale non-potable water reuse system that will collect wastewater from five newly constructed buildings, servicing over 8,000 people, with a capacity of up to 400,000 gallons per day.  

The project uses 10,000 square feet of underutilized, below-ground space to process trash and fine particles, filter wastewater with a membrane bioreactor, and disinfect with ultraviolet light and ozone. High-quality recycled water will be pumped back to three of the buildings through non-potable water pipelines, supplying greywater for toilet flushing, cooling tower makeup water, and on-site landscape irrigation. Excess treated wastewater is discharged directly into the East River.

The reuse system will reduce potable water use by non-potable applications and the discharge of untreated wastewater into NYC’s combined storm-sewer system, which is often burdened with sewer overflows during precipitation events. Additional benefits associated with this district-scale water reuse project include:

  • Reducing potable water use up to 200,00 gallons per day
  • Providing a drought-resilient water supply to the Domino District
  • Providing district property owners with cost incentives through local sustainability initiatives

Any community can follow the examples above to turn wastewater into a multi-faceted shared asset. However, regulatory landscapes, available funding, and public support set the pace of innovation.

Navigating Challenges and Leveraging Opportunities in Water Reuse Initiatives

Water reuse initiatives present both challenges and opportunities for wastewater utilities and municipalities, demanding strategic planning and support. As utilities explore avenues to address water management challenges, it's essential to consider all available options for overcoming obstacles and maximizing benefits.

  • Maximizing Environmental and Economic Benefits: Water reuse initiatives offer a sustainable solution to water management challenges, reducing environmental impact and operational costs for utilities. While navigating the regulatory landscape and technical complexities can be daunting, engineering and law firms with experience in the field can provide valuable insights and support to utilities facing legal and technical challenges related to water contamination.
  • Exploring Funding Alternatives: High capital costs and limited funding sources often hinder the feasibility of water reuse projects. However, utilities may explore alternative funding options such as grants, public-private partnerships, or state/federal assistance programs to overcome financial constraints and support project implementation.
  • Navigating Regulatory Complexities: The intricate web of federal, state, and local regulations governing water reuse presents a significant hurdle for utilities. Navigating these complexities requires expertise and resources, but utilities can leverage partnerships with regulatory agencies and industry associations to stay informed and ensure compliance.
  • Addressing Public Perception and Building Trust: Public perception regarding water quality and safety is critical for the success of water reuse initiatives. Effective communication and education efforts are essential to build public trust and support for reuse projects. Utilities can collaborate with community stakeholders, environmental organizations, and public health agencies to address concerns and promote awareness of the benefits of water reuse.
  • Exploring Litigation as a Potential Solution: In addition to traditional approaches, utilities may consider litigation as a potential cost recovery strategy related to water contamination. Experienced water contamination litigation firms can provide legal guidance to utilities seeking to recover water/wastewater contamination costs by holding the manufacturers responsible for the pollution accountable.

This comprehensive approach to addressing challenges and leveraging opportunities aligns with utilities' goals of sustainability and resource conservation. Strategic partnerships, proactive communication, and consideration of alternative solutions, including litigation when appropriate, can help utilities achieve their objectives effectively.

Using Litigation to Help Fund Initiatives

As mentioned above, while there are national and state funding vehicles that provide assistance to wastewater utilities investing in the shift toward water reuse, these funding methods may not necessarily cover all costs involved. Leveraging litigation presents another viable funding option for communities affected by water/wastewater pollution, one that can be used in tandem with the previously referenced funding methods. Holding polluters accountable for contaminant discharge offers a mechanism for cost recovery, supporting the financial feasibility of installing advanced treatment solutions at wastewater treatment facilities nationwide. SL Environmental Law Group's considerable experience and focus on water and wastewater contamination litigation allows our firm to help utilities seeking guidance in navigating legal and water-related challenges.

If your facility has been affected by or suspects PFAS contamination, schedule a free consultation with us today to discuss your situation and understand cost recovery strategies to fund water reuse technologies that protect the safety of ratepayers and utility budgets.