Utahns, are you ready to drink your recycled toilet water? A mobile lab aims to prove you can.

A Colorado project could save a lot of water, but does Utah have the appetite for it?

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Water recycling is nothing new. In fact, it’s what water does best.

You probably first learned about the water cycle back in first grade. You may not, however, have considered how long the return trip should be between when you take a drink of water, expel that water, and, well, drink it again.

A mobile lab created by researchers in Colorado Springs, Colorado wants you to get comfortable with cutting down the time from toilet to tap water — by a lot.

“We wanted to build something that we could take to communities and show that we can take just about any wastewater and turn it directly into drinkable water,” said Tzahi Cath, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

In the past week Utahns have witnessed the air simultaneously filled with smoke, rain and hail. With climate change, we can expect the unexpected.

“What we’ve seen all this summer is rapid climate change,” said Tara Bishop, a research ecologist for the Maintaining Resilient Dryland Ecosystems science program of the US Forest Service. “The wildlife and the people of Utah cannot keep pace.”

Adapting to that change, said Bishop, may mean getting outside of our comfort zone in unexpected ways.

Recycled toilet water on wheels

Professor Cath’s contribution to water conservation is the PureWater Lab. Crammed into a 35-foot trailer, it carries some of the most sophisticated water purification and monitoring equipment available. While state of the art, the materials used were also sourced for their affordability and availability.

In addition to highly sophisticated monitors, it goes through six steps of filtration and purification — from prefiltration to catch large objects, to ozone, waste-consuming microorganisms, carbon filters, and chlorine and ultraviolet treatments.

Like a traveling roadshow, the lab moves from one Colorado community to another. At each stop, the show is the same — untreated wastewater enters at one end of the trailer, and clean, high-quality drinking waters comes out the other.

(Joe Del Nero | Colorado School of Mines) Dr. Tzahi Cath (left) and graduate student Mason Manross (right) monitoring the filtration system inside the mobile PureWater Lab in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Colorado is currently writing the rules for direct recycling of wastewater to potable (drinkable) water. The mobile lab, as much as anything, is a public relations campaign on wheels aimed at proving there is nothing to fear from directly recycled water.

“I was the first one to drink water from the trailer,” Cath said, “so I took personal responsibility here.”

The professor explains some are skeptical of drinking the recycled water, but others are excited because they understand the importance of this innovation.

“They understand we have technologies that can treat the water to a high level,” Cath said, “sometimes even higher quality than the drinking water in our pipes.”

Lessons for Utah from Colorado

Dwindling water levels across Utah’s reservoirs and lakes, combined with dire warnings from the United Nations about the state of our global climate, add urgency to learning lessons from neighboring dry states.

While Arizona is perhaps the leader in water innovation in the west, Colorado has done its fair share, even pioneering the recycling of wastewater for irrigation in the 1960s.

Water that’s used in your home falls into several categories:

• Clearwater — This is water that came out of your pipes but didn’t touch any contaminant, such as when you let the water run in your shower while waiting for it to get warm.

• Greywater: This is “lightly used” water from activities such as taking a shower or rinsing vegetables.

• Blackwater: Is water that went down your toilet.

With the PureWater Lab, Colorado is paving the way for direct recycling of all three types of water for consumer use. Utah has yet to produce policies that allow for widespread greywater or even clear water recycling, though some private companies are trying to make that easier.

The PureWater Lab also serves as a test bed for improved water technologies and processes.

“We collect a lot of data from water treatment facilities, but we don’t do much with the data after we collect it,” said Cath. “We’ll use statistical models and machine learning to try to improve the process and the technology.”

This learning could lead to safer water, greater water conservation, and minimizing the use of chemicals in water treatment.

Cath sees two other lessons from the lab:

First, it could be used to provide water in cases of natural disasters that render normal drinking water unsafe, even feeding the mobile lab water from lakes or streams for recycling rather than wastewater.

Second, it could serve as a model for both testing and creating public awareness to solutions in other areas of environmental concern such as air quality.

Ultimately, though, the focus is on water.

“In Utah and Colorado we need to think very creatively about where water comes from and where it goes, and what we can do to preserve both its quality and its quantity,” said Cath. “While recycling wastewater may not sound appetizing, we need to pursue every angle if we are to have a future here.”


Solutions in practice

  • Interested in doing your own grey water recycling in Utah? Here’s a quick guide from Utah State University.

  • Want to try your hand at rainwater harvesting? Here are some useful tips.

  • Tara Bishop (U.S. Forest Service) uses a sustainable garden watering system based on terra cotta pots called olla irrigation. Learn more about it here.