OneWater: Closing the Loop

by Madison Smith

November 30th, 2020 (due Dec. 4th)

Fresh, potable surface water is remarkably hard to come by on this planet. Water accessibility varies greatly around the world. In regions with water treatment and distribution infrastructure where water can usually be counted on to be safe and clean, it is easy to be unaware of the issues surrounding water scarcity in the world1. About 97% of the water on Earth is salt water in the oceans. The remaining 3% that is fresh water is mostly locked up in polar ice caps and glaciers. About 1% of all water is fresh groundwater, and 0.5% is fresh surface water2.

Availability of Fresh Water on Earth

This surface and ground water is what we treat and use to drink, bathe, cook, wash clothes and cars, water landscapes, fill pools, use in manufacturing processes, flush toilets, and myriad other applications. Increasing population projects an increase in demand for water, even as technology tries to close the gap in the form of low-flow faucets, toilets, and other household appliances3. Therefore, more innovation and aggressive solutions to water conservation will be necessary in order to meet the growing water demands of cities in the future.

One solution theory is the concept of “One Water,” which suggests that we approach water use and conservation strategies from a complete systems perspective, rather than breaking out water management into separate fields of treatment, distribution, collection, stormwater management, and remediation3. This approach would allow us to close the loop and begin to reuse and recycle much more of the water we use, decreasing the amount of water we would need to remove from the environment and ensuring that there will be sufficient water available in the future. This will require more communication between water management fields.

Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System

An example of the OneWater concept being implemented is Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System. The GWRS is a county-level approach to water conservation and aquifer replenishment. The Groundwater Replenishment System treats wastewater and stormwater from Orange County and directly injects it back into the Anaheim percolation basins4. These groundwater basins are one of the county’s drinking water sources. This program reduces reliance on the Colorado River and “creates a locally controlled, reliable supply of high-quality water that is drought-resilient.”

One Water Concept

The OneWater concept has received some pushback, largely in the form of negative public opinion. In the 1990s, programs similar to Orange County’s were rejected because they became politicized and were labeled “toilet to tap.”4 Although we have the technology to treat wastewater and stormwater to drinking-water quality standards, the idea of drinking water that was previously used in toilets, bathing, cleaning, and other uses still repels people.

Public stance and focus on this issue may be changing in the present day. In February of 2020, the EPA announced its plans to develop a National Water Reuse Action Plan (WRAP)5. The draft of the plan includes over 200 implementable action items that could be taken by “various water partners to support consideration of water reuse, which can improve the portfolio of available fresh water.”5 Parts of this plan include integrated watershed action (2.1) and policy coordination (2.2), both of which will be essential in the effort to sustain our water supply through responsible management.

WRAP Action Plan

The issue of water scarcity in both developed and developing countries will only become more urgent as climate change continues to exacerbate drought and disrupt the hydrologic cycle, while increasing population will simultaneously increase demand. Greater trust must be built between municipal entities responsible for treating water in order for concepts such as OneWater to become reality.

What do you think? Would you drink recycled and treated wastewater and stormwater?

Want to watch an excellent documentary about water? See “Brave Blue World” on Netflix (50min).


  1. United Nations, Water Scarcity. November 4, 2020.
  2. Leach, Franklin E. Aquatic Chemistry Lecture Slides. Environmental Chemistry, ENVE 4350. November 4, 2020.
  3. Arcadis International, Inc. Advancing the One Water movement with intelligence. December, 2019.
  4. Orange County Water District. Groundwater Replenishment System: About GWRS. November 4, 2020.
  5. Environmental Protection Agency, National Water Reuse Action Plan: Improving the Security, Sustainability, and Resilience of Our Nation’s Water Resources. February 2020.


  1. Freshwater availability:
  2. Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System:
  3. OneWater graphic:×283.png
  4. WRAP Action Plan:

18 thoughts on “OneWater: Closing the Loop

  1. Madison, great article! I had never heard of the “One Water” idea. It sounds very logical as it would group together various organizations to provide better oversight on the entire water treatment and delivery processes. You pose the question of if we would be ok drinking recycled water. I would love to say I would without any question, but I don’t know if I’m that brave! I understand that the water would be clean and return to its original state, but it would be mentally hard for me to get behind. Ultimately, to get all cities behind the idea of One Water will take a while to change everyone’s perspectives. This is a new concept and there is always pushback to a new way of life. I’m not sure if this is legal/ethical or not, but could cities just go ahead and switch to a one water concept without citizen vote? I doubt anyone would notice a difference if it was never pointed out to them.


  2. This honestly seems like a good idea. I do not think I would be opposed drinking reused water. It has been filtered and treated. It does not really matter. All the atoms and molecules on Earth are recycled anyway since we are in a closed system. The produce we eat can be fertilized with manure so molecules in manure go into the plants and then you eat the plants. It is basically the same thing so it does not bother me.


  3. This is a very well composed and cohesive article highlighting on of the main challenges facing engineers globally. With the ever-increasing population and global environmental health on the steady decline a system such as OneWater could help alleviate strain on existing systems due to increased demand. I think the only obstacle that may present a challenge is the public’s perception and political backing, but other than that seems like a very feasible alternative to me.


  4. This I think is a great system to utilize anywhere in the US, but mostly in the West/Midwest where droughts are so bad. Someone posted an article earlier in the semester about the Colorado River slowly drying up due to the lack of runoff from the Rockies, and this makes me think that OneWater may be a solution to helping mitigate water loss across the midwest. What are the costs associated with this program though? What costs are immediate versus long-term, and does that outweigh the benefits? Or would this long-term save us money? These are also important questions to consider when looking at implementing a new program. I’m a fan though.


  5. Great article Madison! It was honestly very thought provoking in a way I didn’t expect. I also have never heard of the “One Water” idea and it honestly makes a lot of sense now that I’ve read about it. You asked if I would be okay drinking recycled water and I think with proper processes I might be okay. Realistically I don’t overly analyze my water source now as much as I probably should so recycled water may even be better then the water I’m getting now, haha. The thought of it is concerning and scaring but I think that fear would come from assumptions and misinformation. With the water returning to its original state it would essentially be unused water and that would have to be a process explained to those utlizing the service. The reality is after many years this may be one of our only options if we continue to deplete our resources and I think it’s a great solution.


  6. I also think this was a great article. It was informative but still an easy read. I had heard about the idea before but have never considered it actually being implemented. I would like to say I’d be open to the idea and I trust the fact that we can clean and recycle the water, but I would want to see the facts. As we have discussed, companies do not always follow regulations and with a project like this, I would want constant reassurance that corners are not being cut and the water is treated to meet standards. As an engineer I think it is a great innovative concept, but as a customer, I would want to see the guarantees.


  7. I really enjoyed this article. I think it’s slightly shocking that as a senior environmental engineering student that this is my first time hearing about the ‘One Water’ concept/movement. I think it makes perfect sense, and it is a shame that people are so turned off from it. I feel like we can help gain public support for this by expanding the public’s education on the water treatment process. Nobody in the developed world knows where their water comes from! Do you think some version of this could also be implemented into developing countries to aid their water accessibility as well?


  8. Although I knew there was much more saltwater than freshwater, I didn’t know the disparity was so large. I’m not super educated when it comes to water usage so this article was a very good read. I have also never heard of the “One Water” concept which shocks me due to how old it is. At first thought I can see why people in the 90’s might have a negative connotation towards this concept, but it’s good to see that the public and official opinion is changing on this idea.


  9. This is a great idea. I’m surprised that something like this hasn’t been really attempted before, but it makes sense when you think about the public perception of ‘toilet-to-tap’. I agree that initiatives like this are essential to prepare for increased water demand in the future. The marketing will need to be accepted by the public, but I think that could be accomplished by explaining to them how it works and proving that it cleans the water effectively.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great article! I agree with my classmates in which the OneWater concept would be a great implementation in order to alleviate strains on existing systems and help in meeting our growing demands. I think public opposition of this concept really helps us highlight 3 things that we should be aware of: 1) public opposition may be high because our citizens are not trusting of government’s public health actions. We must demand the government be more transparent of its decisions. 2) There is a lack of education. It is clear that people may not be trusting of this concept simply because they do not know or understand the water treatment process. I believe we need to make things like this wide known knowledge. 3) I really believe that people saying they would be reluctant to drink recycled water really highlights the privilege in this country. There are nations where people die every single day from waterborne illnesses due to no access to clean water. There are communities in our very own nation (Flint, Michigan example) which do not have access to clean tap water. But people will refuse clean water because it is recycled?


  11. This is a terrific article on a concept that many people are probably not aware of. The idea of turning wastewater and stormwater into usable water would likely save our water crisis for the foreseeable future. Like you stated, the push back from the public would likely be strong, since people just love their clean water, but if the cities were able to present the shortage and eventual running out of potable drinking water, I believe that would sway people’s opinions. I, for one, wouldn’t mind as long as it tastes, looks, and is as clean as normal water. From your research, it definitely sounds like it is. Even the water we currently gather from sources is pretty dirty before it goes through water treatment, so this OneWater solution really shouldn’t throw people for a loop. Likely, there will be push back, but if cities can show the citizens concrete evidence that a change needs to be made now and that this water is really no different from the water we have always been drinking, I think the majority would be on our side.


  12. Hey! I really enjoyed reading your article. You did an excellent job painting the issue of water recycling and how scarce freshwater is. I always knew that there was more saltwater than freshwater, but with freshwater only 1.5% is actually accessible to us. You also did a great job explaining the Onewater system and the pros and cons that come with it. It seems like an ideal system, but the flaws do weigh a lot and should be reconsidered. Great Job!


  13. This was a fantastic read Madison! I agree with you that the scarcity of our freshwater calls for the need of immediate attention as climate change brings upon complicated problems. I do not understand people’s resistance to using wastewater and storm water as it is evident that the water can be treated to a point that makes it indistinguishable to bottled water. In order for a concept like OneWater to excel, we need to properly educate those that do not understand the value potential in committing to a theory like this one. Like someone stated above, people’s opinions will begin to change as soon as there is an increase in water shortages and water prices go up as a result. And to answer your question, I would drink recycled wastewater and storm water.


  14. We stan one water in this house. I personally do understand some aversion to drinking recycled water though. I think there needs to be greater transparency and communication between water professionals and their communities across the board, which may help with this. Also, some rural communities use many of these principles already. Lots of wastewater treatment plants in south ga use spray fields, where partially treated sewage is sprayed onto fields of crops. The USDA and EPA have found that besides decreasing the resource and energy load for treatment, spray fields also significantly increase groundwater recharge while providing crops with a source of organic nutrients.


  15. Great read! I definitely agree that water should be reused as as to prevent more waste in the environment. OneWater is something I’d definitely be willing to do if it means being more sustainable with our resources. Sure it may be strange to think about drinking water that used to be in your toilet, but if we are being realistic, technology has advanced to the point where there are methods to purify water that used to be in your toilet to be completely safe and drinkable (but of course this water can be reused to all kinds of purposes). I really hope this plan of recycling water becomes more widespread.


  16. I’ve always thought this was a very attractive idea, to recycle water rather than expel it. One of my main concerns would be the accumulation of particles/compounds that are not being treated for in the current system, so it would likely require stricter standards of treatment. I’m also curious if public opinion could be swayed on this, as “toilet to tap” is pretty strong rhetoric against the proposed system. Great read!


  17. This topic is of particular interest to me as I will be working on a water/wastewater management team after graduation. It is interesting how people don’t want to use “toilet water” or water that was once used for other purposes, when all water on Earth is the same water that has been used for thousands of years and used in every way possible! I agree that if water is able to be treated to acceptable standards, it should be accepted and used as possible. Have people considered a possibility where toilets could drain to separate systems than more desirable water systems, like water fountains and sinks, etc.? Not necessarily what I think is the best route, just wondering if it had been considered. I liked your point about not understanding water scarcity if you come from a place with ample water. Being from the South, we are so used to water being widely available that we are less desperate and therefore less likely to be willing to go to extreme measures to increase water security. I wonder what it would take for people in water secure areas to be willing to accept a system like this!


  18. Hey Madison cool article! I used to work for Gwinnett County Water department and they spent alot of money on researching direct potable reuse. During a tour of Gwinnett’s largest WWTP, the tour guide said we could technically drink the effluent that day because the lab numbers were really good. Then I started to question, if the effluent is that clean, why are they spending so much money on researching the direct potable reuse technology? What is the hold up? I was able to spend some time with some researchers who worked directly on the project and they said that public perception is the easy answer for why it is not being used. However, emerging contaminants are the true problem. Most WWTP processes and technologies do not effectively remove emerging contaminants so RO filtration is currently the only fool proof option. I think this stuff is super cool and I had a great time reading your article


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