A Thirsty Planet: As Water Grows Scarce, Americans Embrace Water Recycling

Oct 29, 2012 7:30 AM ET

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft reached the edge of the Solar System in 1990, cosmologist Carl Sagan asked NASA mission control to snap a picture of the Earth some 3.7 billion miles away. From that distance our planet appeared as a fragile blue dot lost in the darkness of space. Recently U.S. scientists produced another startling image of a pale blue dot. This one, also barely visible, represents the amount of fresh water in all the lakes and rivers as compared to the size of the Earth.

The image, here, tells the story of a world running out of water. Ground water depletion in Mexico City, for example, has made the metropolis sink by 30 feet and some two million residents now lack piped water. The U.S. federal government estimates that 36 U.S. states will face water shortages next year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population, or 5.3 billion people, may experience lack of water.

But here’s some good news. A new GE water survey found that people in the U.S., the world’s third thirstiest nation after India and China, strongly support waste water reuse to fight water scarcity. The poll found that 84 percent of Americans thought that water resource protection should be a national priority. Some 80 percent of them supported recycling waste water for use in agriculture, power generation, manufacturing, and other industrial processes, as well as car washing, landscaping and toilet flushing. Nearly half of Americans said that they would pay up to 12.4 percent more for water that came from a sustainable source.

The survey also found that 57 percent of Americans would prefer to do business with a company that “prioritized” water reuse, and 42 percent reported they would patronize a company that recycled water even if its products or services cost more.

Globally, some 20 percent of fresh water resources are swallowed by industrial installations like power plants, and refineries. In the U.S., industrial water use approaches 45 percent of all water use, but just 6 percent is being reused.

This is a problem but also big opportunity. Companies like GE can help. GE has a large water treatment business with roots that go back to 1925. Many large utilities, energy companies and chemical plants are already GE customers and the company helps global customers save more than 2 billion gallons of water each day. Advanced water recycling technology in GE’s ecomagination portfolio has brought for the first time recycling costs down to the level of conventional treatment. In pilot study at Marco Island in Florida, where treated water is used for irrigation of golf courses and hotel lawns, the technology has saved freshwater and provided breakthrough energy savings of 30 percent. GE also operates the world’s largest fleet of mobile water treatment systems, which can be quickly deployed in emergencies, prevent spills, and sustain production.

“GE sees water reuse as a critical solution to help reverse the trend of growing water scarcity in the U.S. and around the world,” said said Heiner Markhoff, president and CEO of GE Power & Water’s water and process technologies business. “The technology needed to move toward that reality is available today.”

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