Toilet water solves water shortage in Midwest

Every week, people watch the show "Real Housewives of Orange County," and I'm sure they get envious of the lavish lifestyles that are depicted. As they watch the needlessly wealthy and incredibly vapid and self-absorbed cast of characters loll about in their cavernous houses and attend gala pool parties, I know some people think to themselves, "I wish I lived in Orange County, California."

Well, here's some news that could change your mind.

Recently, Orange County celebrated the opening of their Ground Water Replenishment System, which will take sewage water directly from the county bathrooms, filter it through a $490 million purification process and then deposit it back into the county's water supply where it will, eventually, come out of shower heads and taps. Keep that in mind the next time you see those Botox-addled "real" house fraus guzzling water to maintain their surgically enhanced figures.

Actually, it's a great idea. And if it grosses you out - and who can blame you if it does - you need to get over it. Whether you realize it or not, we have serious water issues in this country. And recycling sewage water isn't just safe, it's also an efficient use of resources to solve an ever-growing problem.

Using recycled sewage water has actually been done for years for landscaping and as irrigation for agriculture to help battle water shortages, but only recently has purification technology advanced to the level where this wastewater can actually be turned into drinking water.

To be clear, the toilet-to-tap water purification systems don't work exactly like it sounds that they work. I'm sure much of the gross-out factor that's behind public distrust of these systems comes from the unfortunate and incredibly evocative term "toilet-to-tap." It's not quite that direct. It's not as though what comes out of you on Monday will be cleaned up and potentially going back into you on Friday. The process takes months.

After the toilet water leaves your bathroom, it's treated and purified through a system of tanks, pipes, and filters. Then it's allowed to flow into local lakes, where it goes through the same natural filtration system that rainwater goes through - it makes its way through clay, rock, and sand and into underground aquifers where drinking water is drawn from. Of course, once it's drawn from the groundwater, it's treated yet again. Make no mistake - that water is as safe to drink.

But that doesn't mean people are happy about it. According to a survey conducted in San Diego, most people don't care that toilet-to-tap water is identical to any other kind of treated city water. They don't want to drink it. Period. In 2000, city officials in water- starved Los Angeles (which, remember, is actually a desert - every ounce of water in that city needs to piped in from someplace else) had to call off a $55 million "toilet-to-tap" project that could've solved the water issues for over 120,000 homes.

This public resistance is understandable. But it's misplaced and groundless fear. In fact, it reminds me quite a bit of the issues of cloned food and genetically modified produce that I've written about before. It's misperception. And we can't allow misplaced and unfounded public squeamishness to get in the way of something that has the potential to do so much public good.

There are serious drought issues in several parts of the country right now. In Georgia, two years of record-low rainfalls have shriveled up nearly the entire state. Once-thriving lakes have literally turned to vast swaths of muddy puddles. And San Diego is also wrestling with a water crisis. Like L.A., San Diego actually imports 90 percent of its potable water. But the source of this water - the Colorado River - is drying up, too. So of course this begs the question: "Then what?"

The fact is, Orange County is just the first step. You'd better get used to the idea of drinking water that was - at one point, months ago - toilet water. It's safe and practical and could solve a lot of problems. In fact, those irritating housewives from Orange County could be the perfect spokespeople for toilet-to-tap water treatment - maybe they could help turn it into a status symbol like they do with everything else in their lives. And as long as they only have to say that it "helps fight the effects of drought" rather than having to spell "drought," they should be OK.