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Rockland County, New York considers reusing wastewater

April 2002

U.S. Water News Online

ROCKLAND , N.Y. -- Rockland is joining a growing number of water-hungry communities throughout that nation exploring the ultimate form of conservation -- recycling water.

As drought conditions worsen both locally and across the region, the concept of treating wastewater and returning it to the water supply is gaining increased acceptance. Rockland officials will meet later this month to discuss ways the county can make use of the million of gallons of water discharged every day into the Hudson River.

"It's a natural question," said County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef. "Whether it can or will work in Rockland we don't know, but it's an option we are looking at."

Every day, about 20 million gallons of effluent -- treated wastewater from Rockland's sewer plant -- leaves the county through a series of pipes that run from the treatment facility in Orangeburg to Piermont, where it is released into the Hudson River. Reusing that water could go a long way toward meeting the demand.

"We don't make water," said Ron Delo, executive director of the county's sewer district. "We have a fixed quality of water on this Earth, and it is used over and over again."

There are many ways Rockland could put that 20 million gallons of effluent to use every day, he said. New technology is making it possible to transform "used water" back into clean, "new water," experts said.

"The technology in water re-use has been advancing in the past 10 years," said Al Gray, deputy executive director of Water Environment Federation, a Virginia-based organization dedicated to the preservation of the global water environment. "We can now take wastewater to the point where its quality is suitable for use as drinking water."

That is one possible option for Rockland, said Delo, who is preparing a report outlining different ways Rockland could reuse its water. Depending on the level of treatment, that water could be put to different uses.

The easiest, most immediate use now under consideration is making the effluent sent into the Hudson available for uses such as watering golf courses and landscaping, Delo said. That water -- so called "gray" water -- would be for non-drinking purposes and anyone who applies it must clearly label it as non-potable.

Like the drinkable water now being used for watering, the gray water would percolate back into the groundwater or make its way to Rockland's reservoirs. It would be disinfected and treated the same as any other water is before being released back into the system that carries it to homes and businesses throughout Rockland.

"It's doing just what nature does, only on a fast-track basis," said Delo, who also is past president of the New York Water Environment Association, a professional society based in Syracuse.

Another option is treating the effluent and instead of sending it out of the county via the Hudson River, discharge it into streams or pipes that lead into either Rockland's aquifers or reservoirs. The county would have to increase the level of treatment for that water to make sure waste water does not pollute clean sources. That water would be treated with disinfectants again as it came through the water treatment facility.

Using new technology, the wastewater also could be purified and used again as drinking water.

"The technology is there to do it," said Kevin Doell, spokesman for United Water, which provides water to 90 percent of Rockland homes and businesses. "Water re-use is definitely a viable option that needs to be considered."

There's no question that technology has the ability to transform waste water into clean drinking water, experts said. The bigger hurdle is gaining public acceptance for the idea, experts said. In some places that have explored the idea, the concept was abandoned because of fears among residents that such wastewater was not clean or safe, Gray said.

"That is a perception," he said, "even if it's not based on reality." Reused water has to meet the same strict federal standards as any other kind of water, he said.

It's not clear how Rockland residents would perceive the idea.

"We have to be practical," Monsey resident George Lehmberg said. "We don't have enough water to go around, and we have to come up with a solution." Water reuse is not such a radical idea, he said.