Recycled drinking water

Recycling waste water for drinking could help with water shortages but is it safe?
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  • Updated:27 Jan 2008

01.The recycling scene


In brief

  • Recycling waste water for drinking is going ahead in south-east Queensland, being trialled in Perth, and being considered by Goulburn.
  • If managed carefully, recycling water for drinking could significantly reduce water shortages.

There's very high support for using recycled water on parks and gardens, but strong debate over whether it's safe to drink. By some it’s viewed as a last resort, at best.

With so much conflicting information on the pros and cons of recycling water for drinking, it's hard to know the truth. In this report we sort the myths from facts. 

Please note: this information was current as of January 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

The recycling scene in Australia

Toowoomba residents voted down a proposal to recycle waste water for drinking in 2006, with 62% opposed. Taking this message on board, Goulburn in NSW is undertaking lengthy community consultation on all its available water management options. A recycling option being considered there could contribute up to half the area’s water needs, but so far 41% of people surveyed considered the proposal undesirable.

Recycling isn’t going ahead in Toowoomba itself, but the Queensland government did come to regard it as the only choice for securing the water supply in neighbouring southeast Queensland and Toowoomba may yet be connected to that bigger scheme. The Queensland scheme, which includes Brisbane, is one of the largest of its type in the world.

Canberra has, for now, stopped short of recycling water to supplement the drinking water supply, even though it was identified as an option during recent community consultations.

Instead, last October the ACT government approved the design of a water recycling demonstration project. Wastewater will be recycled to drinking quality, but used for research and monitoring purposes – and the recycled water won’t be added to drinking water supplies.

The wider scene

It’s far from an exhaustive list, but here are some examples of recycled water initiatives worldwide.

  • Orange County, California - managed aquifer recharge since 1976.
  • Scottsdale, Arizona - managed aquifer recharge since early 1990s.
  • North Virginia - reservoir augmentation since 1978.
  • Windhoek, Namibia - direct reuse since 1968 and upgraded in 2002.
  • Veurne-Ambacht, Belgium - managed aquifer recharge since 2002 (also prevents saltwater intrusion into ground drinking water).
  • Singapore - reservoir augmentation since 2003.
  • Perth - trialling managed aquifer recharge (2005–2008).
  • Southeast Queensland - reservoir augmentation (in construction, ready late 2008).
  • Goulburn NSW - considering reservoir augmentation via wetlands.

Choice verdict

Any problems with recycled water are really not about the science or the engineering feasibility – these have already been proven. The sticking point is community acceptance and trust in authorities.

The national guidelines for recycled water for drinking will be an important step. There also needs to be the flexibility to update and strengthen water management requirements as more is learnt.

Recycled water is coming to Queensland and there are likely to be more projects on the way. Since the decision to go ahead with indirect potable reuse, a Water Commission survey has shown 74% of south-east Queenslanders are supportive of the scheme. On the other hand, a survey conducted by opponents showed 90% were against it – although only 1.5% of people invited to respond to that survey did so.

Recycled water through indirect potable reuse can be an important addition to the water supply. Don’t get too excited — it’s unlikely to eliminate water restrictions — but on the bright side it should help stop them getting worse.


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