Wichita Falls braces for water from sewers with Texas in drought
Pastor Bob McCartney of First Baptist Church tries to love his neighbor. He’s just not thrilled that Wichita Falls, Texas, will soon have him drinking water that once swirled down his neighbor’s toilet.
The city of more than 104,000, suffering the worst drought on record, is about to become the first place in the United States to treat sewage and pump it directly back to residents. People who live in Wichita Falls, northwest of Dallas on the Oklahoma border, say they’ll buy more bottled water and try not to think about what’s flowing through their pipes when they bathe, brush their teeth and make soup.
“The idea is a bit grotesque,” said McCartney, 48, who has led prayer vigils for rain. “I’m not crazy about it.”
Other U.S. localities are considering similar approaches as water becomes scarcer – the result of drought, growing populations and greater consumption. The crisis is worldwide. In California, food prices are being driven higher, and from Brazil to southeast Asia a historic lack of rainfall is hobbling power and crop production.
Wichita Falls, a sun-baked ranch town that hosts the Hotter’N Hell Hundred endurance bike ride each August, is awaiting final state approval to begin recycling 5 million gallons a day starting next month, said Teresa Rose, deputy public works director. That’s about a third of its usage.
Rose says the water will be safe and that all traces of sewage will be removed.
Residents say they’re not convinced.
“When my son gets water out of the kitchen sink, I am going to chase him down and stop him from drinking it,” said Chira Traore, 32, as she sipped a bottle of Ozarka on a recent walk through Lucy Park, home of the falls on the Wichita River that lend the city its name.
Wichita Falls has been trying to sell the plan using videos and public meetings.
“You have people who say, ‘Ewww, I am drinking someone else’s toilet water,’ ” Rose said. “But when you think about it, everyone downstream is already drinking someone else’s toilet water.”
Some localities purify wastewater and send it into lakes and reservoirs. Those supplies may eventually be treated and used for drinking.
Wichita Falls is going further by planning to be the first U.S. locality to send the cleaned sewer water directly back to its treatment plant, said Zachary Dorsey, a spokesman for the WateReuse Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group whose members include utilities, government officials and researchers. Cities in Texas, California, Florida and North Carolina are also considering direct reuse, he said.
Raleigh, N.C., which reuses water indirectly, plans to push legislation this year to allow the direct method, said Tim Woody, its wastewater superintendent. Direct reuse “is still taboo,” said Woody. “It is a responsible way to address our water needs.”
Sewage increasingly will become a resource, said Calvin Finch, director of the Water Conservation and Technology Center in San Antonio.
“It’s not something that’s pleasant to think about,” Finch said. “You have to educate people to the idea.”
Sewage has long been reused. Astronauts in the International Space Station turn urine back into drinking water. In Israel, more than half the water used in agriculture comes from treated sewage, according to the Israel Water Association. Only a few places around the globe, including Windhoek, Namibia, recycle it directly.
In the U.S., there is widespread sensitivity to contamination. Officials in Portland, Ore., said they were dumping more than 38 million gallons of treated water after a man was accused of urinating in a reservoir last week.
With two-thirds of Texas in drought, Wichita Falls officials plan to use sewage because it’s faster and cheaper than building reserves or drilling wells. When the drought ends, the city plans to redirect treated water to a lake.
Amid its worst drought in 140 years of recorded rainfall, Wichita Falls also is spending $300,000 this year to seed clouds, hoping that will refill its two diminished lakes, which are at 26 percent capacity. Residents have posted blue-and-white signs reading: “PRAY FOR RAIN.”
The city banned outdoor watering, prevented golf courses from using municipal supplies and imposed higher rates for excessive use. If levels continue to decline, residents will be told not to fill swimming pools.
Daily consumption has fallen to 15 million gallons, down 4 million since before the drought started in 2011, Rose said. The city increased rates 8.5 percent to cover the $13 million reuse system.
Wichita Falls’ application is pending as officials review filtration and testing systems, said Andrea Morrow, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman. Federal approval isn’t needed.
Here’s how the city plans to create potable water:
Sewage first would go to a plant that removes solids, the same way it’s now treated before sending it into the Wichita River. Next, microfiltration to remove waste, and then reverse osmosis to remove contaminants, including pharmaceuticals flushed down the toilet.
In the final step, the discharge goes to the same plant that cleans lake water, where it’s treated chemically to remove pathogens. Add chlorine and fluoride, and it goes straight to the faucet.
“You can take any water and turn it into drinking water,” said Joseph Cotruvo, a Washington consultant who wrote clean water standards when he was at the Environmental Protection Agency. “There is the technology out there to take out everything.”
For a city named for a dramatic display of water, dealing with its lack is a major adjustment.
“I am personally not very pleased about it, but what are you going to do?” said Mark McKethan, chief executive officer of the Wichita Falls Area Food Bank. “I’m not going to go without a shower.”
Ronnie Deford, who manages the city’s Corner Emporium Antiques Mall, said he plans to drink bottled water because he doesn’t believe the city will get its supply clean enough.
“I don’t trust politicians at any level,” said Deford. “I’m not going to believe them, even if they tell me it is good.”