Urine-- or out: Our effluent is good enough to drink

Residents of Lake Monticello have something in common with Fido: they drink water that's been in a toilet.

Yes, after leaving the Moore's Creek Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, water that was once mixed with urine, feces, and everything else poured down the drain empties into Moore's Creek, which feeds the Rivanna River, which supplies Lake Monticello.

But before you cry "Ewww" and start gagging, consider these facts. First off, by the time it pours forth from a Lake Monticello tap, Charlottesville's effluent has been extensively treated to remove organic content. It's then chlorinated to kill bacteria and viruses and then de-chlorinated so that it won't harm the ecosystem once it's released.

In other words, it's pretty pure. "Our effluent is high quality," agrees Larry Tropea, executive director of Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority.

Ron Connor, field director of the Lexington office of the Virginia Department of Health, says the Moore's Creek plant treatment far exceeds typical wastewater standards. He estimates that the plant removes more than 95 percent of the BOD (biochemical oxygen demand), a measure of the oxygen uptake in streams from waste and an indicator of bacteria in the water. Most wastewater treatment plants remove only 87 to 90 percent of the BOD.

The effluent is further cleansed as it travels down the river, until finally11 miles later– it's run through Lake Monticello's own treatment plant, which makes it potable.

The real question? If our former toilet water is good enough for Lake Monticello and for thirsty Richmonders, another 50 miles downstream, why isn't it good enough to replenish our own parched reservoirs?

Well, it soon might be.

"If our reservoirs hit zero, it's something we could consider," says Tropea. But drinking our own effluent, he says, would be a last resort.

In recent reports, Tropea has outlined what the City is calling a Doomsday plan; before we'd drink wastewater, extreme measures would be put into place. These measures include bringing in barges to access the "heels" of the reservoirs, tapping Chris Greene Lake, and cutting off all nonessential water use the economy be damned.

Connor agrees that Charlottesvillians drinking our own wastewater is an unlikely scenario. He says the Health Department recommends that water travel a minimum of 15 miles downstream before being reused for drinking water (a bit further than the 11 miles to Lake Monticello), but he notes that there is no state-mandated requirement to that effect. Localities, he explains, control discharge upstream for five miles. "The longer it travels, the better the quality," he says.

(For those wondering, Charlottesville isn't downstream from any major metropolitan areas, so we don't drink another city's effluent.)

If all other options had been explored, however, Connor concedes that the Health Department could approve such a plan and would even expedite the process: "We would try to speed things up."

In the meantime, for those who'd prefer not to drink old toilet water no matter how clean abiding by water restrictions is as important as ever, even considering the rain of a week ago.

Though water demand jumped by more than a million gallons on the two days it rained reaching 8.991 million gallons on Friday, September 27– by Sunday, September 29, it had dropped back to 7.545 million gallons.

Should it rain again soon, Tropea says, he hopes that "people don't get lulled." Water use increases when it storms, he says: "It's human nature. When it rains, people let their guard down."

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