There is a disgust factor when people think about drinking urine. This includes urine that has been purified.

The people of Orange County, California, are doing just that. According to State of the Planet (published by The Earth Institute at Columbia University), wastewater is going through “an advanced treatment process” in Orange County.

The publication notes that the Orange County Water District opened a $480 million state-of-the-art wastewater reclamation facility, the largest in the United States, in 2008. It costs $29 million per year to operate. By this year, it’s expected to handle 85 million gallons per day. Note that this is the capacity at the reverse osmosis unit; the result after returning the 20 percent of the water that does not meet standards to the sewage plant is about 65 million gallons per day (mgd).

According to Orange County Water District’s website, there’s currently a 30-mgd 
expansion going on at the plant. This expansion, being done by Siemens, will increase the capacity of the reverse osmosis unit to 115 mgd and the overall capacity to 95 mgd. At $125 million, the cost of the expanded capacity comes to just over $4 per gallon of capacity.

Scientific American points out that after processing in an advanced wastewater treatment system (AWTS), the former sewage is purer than water from either the aquifer or from reservoirs. In fact, the article points out, that water is withdrawn from and then treated sewage is dumped back into the Mississippi River a total of five times by the time New Orleans pulls its drinking water from the river.

Can JEA help Florida’s aquifer and springs by building an AWTS locally — and more important, what about Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Polk counties? Is this something we can afford to do — or can we afford not to do it?

In 2012-’13, JEA sold 33.088 billion gallons of water and treated 24.624 billion gallons of sewage. If this went through advanced treatment and was injected back into the aquifer, we could reclaim almost three-quarters of the water that we use.

To allow for peak usage, a plant capable of 95-mgd overall capacity would probably fit JEA’s needs. Using Orange County costs and adjusting for inflation, the cost would be around $665 million. Does JEA have room for such a plant?

There is a large area of land immediately to the north of the Buckman Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. This parcel is bordered by Talleyrand Avenue on the east, the CSX tracks on the north and Buckman Street on the west. The proximity to the sewage plant means only a short pair of pipes is needed to accept the treated sewage and return the water that does not meet quality standards. There’s also room for injection wells at the site.

How does the AWTS impact the average JEA customer’s pocketbook? Currently, the average customer pays $4.94 per 1,000 gallons for his or her sewage charge. Adding the cost of advanced treatment, the additional fees would be $2.55 per 1,000 gallons to cover debt service and operating costs. What would this do to average JEA customers?

It would make them more water-conscious. They might choose to buy drought-resistant plants and finally comprehend that grass needs to be watered only once a month during a drought and not at all if there’s abundant rainfall. Irrigation is the biggest user of water and the biggest waste of water.

Of course, the state of Florida could create legislation that would help with water conservation. The first measure would prevent homeowners’ associations (HOAs) from setting a “greenness” standard for lawns, which would mean less mandated watering and fewer treatments with nitrogen-rich fertilizers. The second measure would state that all HOAs would be required to allow members to use drought-resistant landscaping.

Maintaining Florida’s springs is more important than having thousands of square miles of perfect yards. The elimination of nitrogen application to Florida’s lawns could decrease the levels of nitrogen discharged into Florida’s waterways by 7 percent. However, there is a measure that could help our state further decrease nitrogen levels.

Florida should make certain that septic tank inspections are fully funded at either the state or local level. It is estimated that defective or aging septic systems account for more than 40 percent of the nitrogen that enters our waterways. If these systems were repaired or replaced, the impact on water quality would be substantial.

This leads us to Central Florida. If the water and sewage providers were to reclaim almost 75 percent of the water in the area and inject it into the aquifer, there would be no need to withdraw water from the St. Johns. After the treatment plants and pipes were built to move water from the river for use throughout Seminole County and beyond, it would cost almost as much as doing advanced treatment and injection into aquifer.

Before allowing the withdrawal of water from the St. Johns to water more Central Florida lawns, there should be a closer look by the St. Johns River Water Management District at using the AWTS and reinjection process to meet the needs of Seminole and Orange counties. This keeps the St. Johns intact and helps maintain the proper salinity levels, a vital ecological consideration.

Before anyone is allowed to move forward with withdrawing river water, the use of the AWTS on a statewide basis should be fully explored. This process, if used in all of Florida, would help with water quality. For instance:

• There would be more water available to feed dying springs such as White Springs near Lake City.

• There would be less nitrogen in critical feed-water locations like Silver Springs.

• There would be more freshwater for our future needs.

• As water use increases, reclamation and injection facilities could be enlarged.

• Saltwater intrusion would be decreased.

• The process allows time for other water shortage solutions, such as desalinization, to become cost-effective.

What could we do to resolve our state’s water issues? Set aside the next $1 billion increase in state revenue to issue bonds for these reclamation and injection plants. After the discount fee, there would $17.46 billion, which provides enough funds to build 32 of these plants. We could then reclaim almost 2.8 billion gallons each day, which is about one-third of our daily freshwater usage.

Using AWTS with conservation measures and aggressive septic tank inspections will go a long way toward helping improve Florida’s water quality. The monthly cost for the average water-user would be about $15. Much of this cost could be offset by a decrease in lawn-watering and conservation.

We should embrace AWTS and help save our waterways — and plant life, animal and marine life, and ourselves.