Would You Drink Water from Cow Poop?
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The Fiscal Times
June 10, 2014

The California drought is bringing renewed attention to water shortages in some parts of the country and the growing need for more sources of clean water. While preservation of existing resources is critical, the scientific community these days has been coming up with surprising – and in some cases, disgusting – new ways to obtain clean water.

Here’s a head-spinning one: Scientists at Michigan State University are developing a system that actually takes cow manure and turns it into water clean enough for livestock to drink.

Known as the McLanahan Nutrient Separation System, the process also extracts nutrients from that water to serve as fertilizer. The system could be ready for commercialization by the end of the year.

Related: $12.3B Water Bill Awash in Rare Bipartisan Effort

“If you have 1,000 cows on your operation, they produce about 10 million gallons of manure a year,” Steve Safferman, an associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering who is involved in the project, told Michigan State University Today. “About 90 percent of that manure is water.”

Some people fervently believe that if the water is clean enough for livestock, then it’s also appropriate for humans.

“If you ask the average American whether they would drink water from cow manure, they’d say no,” Lynn Wilson, executive director at SeaTrust Institute and academic department chair for public administration at Kaplan University, said in an interview. “But clean water is clean water.”

She added that there’s a psychological challenge for Americans when it comes to getting used to the idea that they could be drinking water from cow manure. “We have to change the mindset of Americans,” she said. “We’re in a learning curve. They’ll say yes [to clean water from cow manure] when there’s no more water.”

That day may come faster than we think. By 2030, nearly half the world’s population could be facing a scarcity of water, with demand outstripping supply by 40 percent, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last year.

After all, Americans in several communities throughout the U.S. are already drinking water that comes from the sewer. Yes, you read that correctly!

Related: What Extreme Weather Is Really Costing Us

Wichita Falls, a Texas town near Dallas that has been under exceptional drought conditions, has a big black pipe connecting the city’s wastewater facility to the water treatment plant. Residents who understand how bad the water shortage has become are supporting the project.

In California, a state that’s experienced pronounced drought in recent years, sewage is all the rage as well. Orange County Water District has one of the oldest and largest wastewater treatment facilities that can recycle sewage water into drinking water.

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Marine Cole has been covering finance and business for a decade and has written for publications that include The Wall Street Journal, Crain's New York Business, and AdvertisingAge.