Is Water Recycling the Future of Commercial Real Estate?

Having just returned from a trip to my hometown in Southern California, I witnessed something new: signs dotting the horizon about water conservation. For decades, California has had water issues, but now the situation has reached a crisis level. Combine that with a drought in the Western states, and you have people discussing the prospect of water recycling. Will it take hold? And should it?

What is water recycling?

Brace yourself for the answer because, at first mention, it doesn’t sound pretty: It’s reusing wastewater from sinks, showers, and toilets. Before you close your mind, consider how it might work.

A water recycling facility, sometimes called a blackwater recycling system, disinfects and readies wastewater for future use. The first step is adding microbes that consume organic matter. The water then goes through a filtration process to clean it of impurities. Next, it’s hit with UV light to kill off anything undesirable that might remain. Minerals are added back to the water, and the end result is water so pure it’s drinkable.

Recycled water can also be used in factories or to water crops. Even now, 10% of the water used in municipal and industrial buildings in California is recycled.

Note: There is blackwater and greywater. Blackwater is water from toilets, and greywater is water from sinks, showers, and washing machines.

The problems

Aside from the nastiness factor (which is eradicated by the treatment), there are other hurdles to overcome with water recycling. It’s expensive, for one. You need to either build new recycling facilities or renovate old ones. To build a wastewater recycling facility from scratch can cost billions of dollars. And once built, it takes an enormous amount of energy to funnel water through the system.

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How water recycling is being used now

San Francisco‘s Salesforce Tower, in the most comprehensive water recycling system of its kind, is recycling water in its basement. In an area as big as 16 car spaces, Salesforce has been treating 30,000 gallons of wastewater a day. The goal is to cut water usage for this commercial building by half.

The Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) building could serve as a model for future commercial buildings in drought-prone areas of the country. In fact, a new building in San Jose, California, just outside San Francisco, will include a water recycling facility as part of the building. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that commercial buildings, particularly in the West, might need to include water-recycling facilities in the near future.

The time crunch

If massive numbers of people will live in the Western United States, something needs to be done to get water to them. And if that something is to be water recycling, the process for making that happen needs to start today. Rafael Villegas of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power told Wired if we wait to start readying for this process, we’ll be too late, as it takes decades to implement this type of program.

The alternatives

In the meantime, using less water helps. On a personal note, while I was in California, I noticed succulent gardens had replaced lawns in many areas — and they were more beautiful than lawns, in my opinion. In fact, compared to the 1980s, water usage is down per person in Southern California by 40%.

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Collecting stormwater is another option. LA is experimenting with turning roadway medians into stormwater collecting zones that direct precipitation to underground tanks.

The Millionacres bottom line

No matter what sort of conservation efforts take hold, a big question remains as to whether those efforts will be enough.

Water recycling may seem to be a drastic, costly endeavor. But if you think climate change will make matters worse for the future of the dry Western states, you might bet on more water recycling efforts in commercial real estate.

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