Wastewater: a deceptively valuable commodity

Bottled water refill station at marketHere on the East Coast, the lawn mowing season is winding down. A little earlier each day the sky looks like a storm brewing. Times have changed; I need less time each day to recognize it’s not a storm, but the westering sun that causes the early-graying sky.

Here in South Central Pennsylvania, those of us who do not regularly water our greenery find it still needs a periodic trim, but not like the rain-pressured growth that bogged down the Troy-Bilt when we returned in July from a wedding in Florida.

Out West, California has little problem watering lawns. They have no water. And increasingly, they have no lawns. Finally, they are going back to what was there when they arrived – cacti, grass and shrubs that do not demand much of the clear, thirst slaking, liquid that used to pour into the Golden State from the High Sierras and the Colorado River.

That is bad news for lawn tractor sellers; the demand for John Deere Green seems pretty well tied to the color of the Once Green Grass of Home.

A colleague in Oregon recently noted his state’s reputation for constant rain has become only a rumor. Oregon and Washington states are turning into giant weenie roasting grills. Where conservationists once complained of loggers stripping mountainsides, hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in place. In a few years, we in Pennsylvania likely will see already painful lumber prices soar as the supply of Pacific coast wood products tightens.

The effect of water shortage, as it appears from my window at the edge of the woods, is being felt wider than the evening television news would have us believe.

Several years ago, I converted the cottage in which I was raised to a year-round home, complete with running water and related indoor facilities. Clear drinking water used for cooking and washing drained into a holding tank, from whence it was piped to the toilet or to outdoor flower gardens.

For most of us, our system of pretending we use water only once and throw it away is not only wasteful, it’s impractical – and largely a lie.

Last year, the town of Wichita Falls, Texas – trying to survive where water supplies had been slashed by drought and fracking – made news by making drinking water from recycled wastewater. Those of my fellow countians who drink Susquehanna River water have been doing that for years, consuming liquid used and reused many times in its 400-mile trip from New York State’s Catskill Mountains to York, Pennsylvania, where some of us draw off a share, satisfy our thirst, cook our meals and wash our clothes before sending the used fluid through a treatment plant and back to the river, and the next customer downstream.

Meanwhile, huge water companies calling themselves Pennsylvania American Water and West Virginia American Water and California American Water  – the name changes in 45 states and part of Canada, but it is all one huge company – are quietly buying up water supplies, and even wastewater treatment plants, preparing for the day when they will control the supply on which the rest of us depend.

As water prices increase, wonderfully paying oil field jobs – that have provided payments on thousands of new pickup trucks for oil field workers – are drying up. Enter, the Repo man, now enjoying a booming business repossessing trucks out of work oil field workers can no longer afford. Eventually, all the trucks will be repossessed and auctioned off for bargain prices, and even the Repo Man will be out of work.

Maybe he can find work in a wastewater treatment plant.

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