On World Water Day, Western Sydney University researchers have suggested Australians have a future of drinking recycled water direct from sewage treatment facilities to look forward to – unless we get smarter about water conservation.

WSU’s Dr Ian Wright said there was a huge potential for treated sewage to supplement urban water supplies once the “yuck factor” was dealt with. And what many people don’t know is that we’re already indirectly drinking recycled water.

“Many Australian sewage treatment facilities already discharge their effluent into the dams, rivers or reservoirs,” Dr Wright said.

“The water is blended into a natural water source and undergoes further treatment before it is used for drinking water. This is referred to as ‘indirect potable reuse’ – and is very common.”

What’s less common is “direct potable use” – where a city’s water is directly sourced from a sewage treatment facility. It’s a practice yet to occur in Australian cities, and judging by history one that isn’t well-accepted.

Toowoomba famously rejected using recycled water in 2006, following a referendum on the issue that came about due to drought. The “no campaign” was headed by former Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton, then a Toowoomba City Councillor. The campaign argued house prices would tumble, thanks to the town’s associations with recycled water – summed up in a joke about “Poowoomba” that helped to sway local sentiment.

But according to Dr Wright Australia’s booming population means that direct potable reuse is the likely future if we don’t change current practices.

Greater Sydney, for example, is set to accommodate an additional 1.74 million people over the next 18 years, and the region’s main waterways may not be able to cope with the extra treated sewage and urban runoff set to enter river systems.

If we aren’t going to directly reuse treated sewage, then we will need to work smarter.

“The river should not take more sewage effluent,” Dr Wright said.

“Instead, pipe systems should take the recycled sewage to all new developments, for use in gardens and toilet flushing – which would relieve some of the pressure on the increasing demand for drinking water.”

WSU’s Dr Dharma Hagare said stormwater management also needed to be improved, and is working on ways for urban centres to harvest and store their own water supplies.

“If rainwater and stormwater were properly harvested and utilised along with treated wastewater, the demand for imported water would reduce and the sustainability and liveability of urban centres would significantly improve,” he said.