POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey compares it to “astronaut water.”

“Just as there are limited water supplies in space travel, there is also limited water sources here on Earth,” he said.

Much like they do in space, Polk County is testing out a plan to treat wastewater to drinking water standards.

“It starts with this process. This is our coagulation and sedimentation,” Polk County Utilities Director Tamara Richardson said during a tour of the facility.

Richardson and other county leaders held a ribbon cutting at the $2.5 million direct potable reuse pilot facility in north Lakeland Thursday.

The plant takes in reclaimed water, which is treated wastewater used now in the county for irrigation.

It then goes through several phases of further treatment: enhanced coagulation and sedimentation, ozone injection, biologically activated carbon filtration, ultrafiltration, granulated activated carbon filters (“the home water treatment pitchers that you might use – that’s the same type of thing”) and ultraviolet disinfection.

“The bacteria is killed in the ozone, but if something does make it through, this inactivates it so it can no longer reproduce,” said Richardson of the ultraviolet disinfection, which is the final step.

For now, during the pilot study, the water is sent back to the wastewater treatment plant as reclaimed water.

Once the pilot study is over in a year and if the county decides to move forward with the program, the potable water could be piped into Polk County homes in five years.

“There is a stigma with it,” Richardson admitted. “Sometimes when they first hear it, they’re a little, ‘I don’t know.’ But then when you start explaining to them what we’re doing and what we’re removing and what the final product is, they’re more comfortable.”

The project is being funded by the county and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), which estimates Polk County will need to process 30 million more gallons of water a day in the next few decades.

“The water management district says that our current supply of water from the upper Floridan aquifer is maxed out. We can’t use that water anymore,” said Lindsey.

County and state officials are already planning on drilling into the lower Floridan aquifer to keep up with population growth.

Lindsey said using potable water derived from wastewater should be explored, and he knows it will take some convincing.

“As science and regulatory agencies allow, then we’ll explore the possibility of putting it into the potable water supply. That’s very far down the road. We’re in kindergarten in this process,” he said.