91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant; Photo by Sreeram Rengaraj

Waste Not

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: December 2017
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It’s illegal to sell recycled drinking water in Arizona, but maybe not for long. Bold beeristas are proving they can brew up something delicious.

Source azpurewaterbrew.org/faqs.html; infographic by Angelina Aragon
Source azpurewaterbrew.org/faqs.html; infographic by Angelina Aragon

“Is this the same as toilet-to-tap?” Jeff Prevatt heard from beer lovers who checked out the Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge, a statewide campaign to highlight water issues by serving beer brewed with effluent reclaimed from municipal treatment plants. “No!” Prevatt, research and innovation manager at Pima County’s wastewater reclamation department, would say. “This is toilet-to-fantastic!”

It sounds like something Samuel Adams would have done on a dare, but 25 state brewmeisters accepted the assignment: Give us a beer concocted with wastewater rendered so squeaky-clean it’s safe to drink. Then see if anybody will swallow it. Prevatt estimates 10,000 visitors to challenge events did: “Their eyes instantly would widen in surprise, and they genuinely liked it.”

It’s common to see reclaimed water used to irrigate lawns, parks and farms, but some towns in Texas and California are so thirsty they’ve started to give wastewater a cleanup to make it drinkable. Arizona isn’t there yet, but in a desert, it pays to prepare. The beer promo was a way to get people to think ahead, and to overcome the “yuck factor.” It was sponsored by the Pima County Southwest Water Campus under a $250,000 innovation grant from the Arizona Community Foundation, Republic Media and Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Brewers competed for a $12,000 prize. The winner: Tucson’s Dragoon Brewing Co.’s Clear Water Pilsner.

“The beer concept is super novel. [We] use that as a mechanism to get people to pay attention,” says Dr. Channah Rock, a water microbiologist at the University of Arizona. She accompanied the Brew Challenge truck, which carried state-of-the-art water-washing gadgetry around the state. The wastewater from treatment plants was cleaned by an intensive process (see sidebar) – a lot of sanitation between the toilet and the tap.

Many consumers, Rock says, were surprised to learn that Arizona doesn’t already recycle wastewater to drink. In fact, the beer project needed a special permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality, because it’s illegal to provide recycled wastewater for drinking in Arizona. That ban is obsolete, says ADEQ water-quality director Trevor Baggiore, because the technology has come a long way. Most of Arizona’s drinking water comes from the Salt and Colorado rivers or groundwater wells, but water from a purification system “is in many ways better and cleaner.” ADEQ is working on new rules for vending recycled drinking water.

The beer project screened its water for 280 pollutants, way more than the 77 required by state and federal law, Prevatt says. The main complaint was that the water was so clean it had no flavor, says former ADEQ public information officer Caroline Oppelman. Some brewers reintroduced salt and minerals to give it some taste, she says.

The city of Phoenix has no immediate need to recycle water for drinking, says Dennis Porter, assistant water services director. He says the city had the foresight to shore up river and groundwater liquid as insurance against future shortages. “It would be a long time – I would say probably the next century – before we would get to a point where we would be using direct potable reuse,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we don’t support direct potable reuse because we absolutely do.”

If that day comes, he predicts acceptance by the public, just as it got used to reused water for parks, landscapes and golf courses. “It just becomes a common thing,” he says.

Still, a handful of curious visitors to Brew Challenge events were too squeamish to taste the stuff. With minds to change, the project will ready another batch of brew-ready water in February or March. Never underestimate the power of beer.