5. The Dirt on Reclaimed Water

As the first student in the University of California system to receive a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Dale Devitt knew he was on the forefront of something special in 1972 but didn’t quite know what to do next. Then his adviser invited him to work in his UC Riverside lab studying soil, and as the environmental movement blossomed, Devitt became a scientist specializing in water and soil issues.

Today he’s a leader in his field. He founded the Center for Urban Water Conservation at UNLV in 1993, but his personal focus for more than a decade has been the study of reclaimed water. This niche is especially important in the Southwest desert, where water is such a precious resource and golf—a notoriously big user of that resource—remains a vital part of our economy and lifestyle. About 30 of the Valley’s more than 50 golf courses are irrigated with reclaimed water, which is great—except when you consider that pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are often present in that water.

“Americans are heavily medicated these days,” Devitt says, “and a good percentage of pharmaceuticals they ingest moves on through and ends up at the wastewater treatment plant.”

So, it’s important to know how reclaimed water—water treated so that it’s suitable for just about everything but drinking—can be employed efficiently and in an environmentally responsible fashion so that your neighbor’s anticonvulsant meds don’t become a hazard to the environment. Devitt says PPCPs should have the opportunity to be degraded and absorbed, “as opposed to just putting it back into a river, lake or stream, where it’s much higher in concentration and already demonstrated to have negative effects on a number of aquatic organisms.”

Devitt has used tanks with turf and some with just soil to measure 14 PPCPs in the water going in and draining out in a field study in North Las Vegas. UNLV, the Desert Research Institute, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and UC Riverside sponsored the nearly $1 million study.

“It’s the first time anybody has quantified it under a tight water budget and over a long period,” says Devitt.

And what he found was that the “concentrations and total mass coming out were significantly smaller than what was going in,” as the chemicals are degraded by microbes or are absorbed onto clay particles and organic matter.

While Devitt dislikes the presence of any PPCPs in water, the results did not discourage his strong advocacy of golf courses’ increasing reliance on reclaimed water. “It’s a way to effectively use poor-quality water in a positive fashion,” he says.

The results of his research should be good news not only to the golf industry, but also to the eco-toxicology industry, where evaluation of PPCP levels has been a hot topic. Devitt will report his findings at the 15th annual Water Reuse & Desalination Research Conference next month at the South Point hotel-casino. He’s also been invited to publish the study in the Journal of Environmental Quality.

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