What is the Best Policy Approach to Implementing Water Recycling? Lessons from Oregon

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Episode Description

On this episode, we'll be speaking with Pete Muñoz, EcoDistricts AP senior engineer and practice lead at Biohabitats, about how the state of Oregon successfully implemented water recycling policies to ensure sustainable water management for generations to come.

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Christoph Lohr: Water is facing alarming stress levels in the U. S. from drought and drinking water pollution, but outdated policies and inefficient use of water resources leave us vulnerable to a future where safe drinking water scarcity can no longer be ignored. On today’s podcast, we speak with Pete Muñoz, EcoDistricts AP senior engineer and practice lead at Biohabitats, about how the state of Oregon successfully implemented water recycling policies to ensure sustainable water management for generations to come.

Here's our discussion.

Pete, welcome to the show.

Pete Muñoz: Thanks for having me. Excited to talk about this stuff.

Christoph Lohr: Pete, I’m really excited to talk about this stuff too, especially because it’s a new topic for me as an engineer, not having done many water reuse systems. And so with that, I would love to learn about Water Recycling 101 for myself and for our audience.

There’s so many terms out there – water recycling, water reuse, water reclamation. Can you give us a high-low overview of what they mean and if they all mean the same thing?

Pete Muñoz: Sure. Generally there’s no formal standard between water reuse or reclamation or recycling. Although the terms are used in different industries, so water reclamation is generally thought of as municipal scale water reuse. Water recycling or water reuse are kind of used across the field. We generally talk about stuff with municipal scale, residential scale, and then kind of decentralized, a scale in between the three levels.

Christoph Lohr: It sounds like when you’re talking about scale, there are some differences in terms of water recycling, and so it may be from homes versus commercial buildings. Can you expand on that just a little bit?

Pete Muñoz: Primarily, it’s a regulatory question. Homes have a different set of rules. As you get into more commercial spaces and larger flows, they’re regulated differently. And then as you increase, you get into larger, more municipal scale. There are really three different levels of policy and codes that we have to understand when we’re doing water reuse.

Christoph Lohr: Gotcha. And you mentioned rules, and rules are normally, in terms of the building, are always about keeping us safe. What are some of the common and safest uses for recycled water that you’re aware of?

Pete Muñoz: Primarily we look at water reuse indoors and outdoors. Outdoors we’re looking at either irrigation or as a cooling makeup water for cooling towers. And on the irrigation side, there’s both irrigation that’s subsurface, which usually has one set of rules, and irrigation that’s like spray irrigation, which has another set of rules.

You want to be a little more protective when you’re spraying water into the air. And then indoors, we’re primarily looking at toilet flushing. There’s also some smaller reuse where it’s like self-priming floor traps, but mostly we’re talking about toilet flushing when we’re looking inside a building.

Christoph Lohr: That makes sense. A lot of times I think people imagine with water reuse, I think the term is toilet to tap. And I know there’s always that gross factor, even though things like the space station, as I’ve come to learn, they recycle all the water right there. But generally speaking, it seems like industry right now, we’re talking tap to toilet in terms of water reuse.

Pete Muñoz: Yeah. I think water treatment has advanced a ton in the last two decades. We can kind of do anything. Like you said, and the space shuttle treats all of its waste to basically drink. And we could do that here in Oregon, but maybe that's not the most appropriate. And so a lot of water reuse is trying to figure out what is the most appropriate source to treat and reuse to the most appropriate demand? We’re all trying to balance those supply and demands.

Christoph Lohr: That makes sense. OK. Are there any best practices then for monitoring and inspecting water recycling installations, and how can policymakers govern installations and installer standards efficiently and effectively?

Pete Munoz: We need codes, and the IAPMO WE•Stand code is a great example of looking at a risk-based framework, which does look at where is water coming from and what are the risks from that source, and how do we treat it to be a safe supply for the demands that we have? And so just on the monitoring side, we have now some sophistication around water monitoring where we have real-time monitoring. We’re looking at clarity of water, turbidity of water in milliseconds to know this is the quality that we’re sending out to our end user and it’s safe. So there’s things like that that really help us in the water industry feel good about the designs that we’re doing.

Christoph Lohr: That makes sense. From the plumbing perspective, oftentimes we talk about credentials or licenses like in my case being a P.E., but credentials to doing work, are there any necessary installer standards or credentials for water recycling systems? Is there anything policymakers should do to ensure that water recycling system installers are qualified and competent, or is that not so much the case?

Pete Munoz: Yeah. Interestingly, there’s not a lot of rules around who it is to install. There are rules about kind of who designs stuff, and there are rules about who operates stuff, but not so much on the installer end, with some exceptions with certain county-level codes. When you work on a residential system, if you purchase one particular type of treatment system, they may want someone that’s certified with that particular vendor to commission and operate the system. But by and large, installers don’t have a certification.

Christoph Lohr: OK, that’s really good to know. Obviously you talk a lot about your experience and your expertise in this matter. Can you share with us a success story of a project that successfully implemented water recycling?

Pete Munoz: Yeah, there’s a couple. Maybe one quick is there’s an affordable housing project by Core in Bend, Oregon, five-home project. What they did is they used Oregon’s graywater code and put in a Tier One, which is kind of the simplest water reuse system. What’s great about that is it uses zero energy, it funnels shower and sink water into the landscape passively, and so it’s just kind of an easy, no-brainer reuse. Oregon officials make it really easy to both permit it and renew their permit just by a simple annual report. It’s very cost effective, and so we need more rules like that that allow easy reuse. And maybe on the flip side, a more complicated system is the PAE Living Building in downtown Portland, where we’re doing some innovative things. We have composting toilets that are treating waste from a five-story office building. We’re diverting urine and processing that to make fertilizer. And so that was something that was successfully permitted. But I would say that newer regulations like the WE•Stand would make that process much easier.

It was definitely a challenge with some of the, when that was permitted a couple of years ago, it was much more costly and challenging to permit than it would be nowadays.

Christoph Lohr: Before I ask my last question, that’s a good point you bring up there at the end. Definitely need to say thanks to our friends at PAE for putting me in touch with you. John Lansing, good friend and business associate of mine, put us in touch, and talking about that PAE Living Building Challenge, really interesting book on that topic. And then, very aware of your system there, which was really impressive. But you bring up a good point there, right at the end. And I guess my last question is, you talk about standards and streamlining some of this process.

I’m assuming that’s maybe part of the advice you would give policymakers or AHJs aiming to implement water recycling standards in their community. We talked a little bit before the show about plumbing and water quality, and now we’re kind of finally starting to mix a little bit; it sounds like there’s a lot of hurdles to jump over, hoops to jump through, and streamlining that and closer collaboration of things like plumbing standards and environmental quality controls is maybe needed.

Can you speak on that a little bit?

Pete Muñoz: Yeah, I think how most states have dealt with water reuse is they’ll tackle one little aspect and so you’ll see a state or jurisdiction say we’re going to pass a gray water code to be able to reuse at this one scale. And that’s been great. But if you look at the state of Oregon, they passed a gray water rule that had three tiers of complexity depending on how big the system was about 10 years ago, and in the entire state there’s been two permitted systems in the top two tiers of gray water system, so very little implementation. I think what we need is more comprehensive rules that cover a variety of scales and variety of water use that simplify both the regulatory and the process for installing and monitoring and maintaining.

We need policy like that to make it easy. We also need engineers and designers to actually try to do some of this stuff, and the regulators are only learning about complications when people are trying to permit stuff and we learn from our mistakes. We need to not be afraid to try water reuse.

Christoph Lohr: I love that answer. It really kind of encompasses this nexus point that is merging between very different worlds it seems like. We’re talking a little bit about sort of the challenges now that are going on and have gone on in the past. Learned a lot from you today, Pete.

Would love to have you on the podcast again here sometime in the near future. What do you think you’d be talking about the next time that you came on?

Pete Muñoz: I would talk about all sorts of fun stuff. The PAE building has some unique things in it that are worth unpacking – the urine separation and processing for reuse is on thing, and that’s something that’s outlined in the WE•Stand code. So they have clear guidance of how you should do that, and once that gets rolled out and adopted, things like the PAE building won’t be that scary to tackle.

Christoph Lohr: Awesome. Well, Pete, on behalf of IAPMO and The Authority Podcast: Plumbing and Mechanical, I just want to say thank you so much for joining me this morning, taking time out of your busy schedule, and I look forward to future conversations with you.

Pete Muñoz: Cheers. Thanks so much.

Christoph Lohr: Cheers.