March 14, 2014

Dry Wichita Falls to try drinking ‘potty water’

With its reservoirs dwindling, the city of 104,000 hopes that a groundbreaking four-step recycling process will provide up to a third of it daily water use.

Wichita Falls has cinched its water conservation belt as tight as it will go and the drought-parched Texas city soon hopes to open the spigot on its source of last resort: potty water.

The city releases about 8 million gallons from a wastewater treatment plant into the Red River daily and Wichita Falls officials are now awaiting state regulatory approval for a project that will recycle and recapture 5 million gallons of the effluent.

“This 5 million gallons is going to be extremely important,” said public works director Russell Schreiber, who notes that Wichita Fall’s three storage reservoirs are hovering at about 26 percent capacity despite a dramatic reduction in water use.

“Conservation worked, but it can only go so far,” he said.

The ground-breaking four-step recycling process, which would provide more than a third of the city’s current daily water use, entails treating a blend of 50 percent wastewater with 50 percent reservoir water, he said.

“We’re taking a higher percentage than what has been done before. A version of this was done at Big Spring, Texas,” Schreiber said. “The difference is they are blending 20 percent effluent with their water supply and we are blending 50 percent.”

On Tuesday, the city completed the 41 days of testing required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The agency is expected to issue a ruling within 30 days.

“All the results look outstanding. We don’t see anything that would prohibit the TCEQ from giving us the green light,” Schreiber said.

‘Watched by everybody’

Residents of the city of 104,000, about 100 miles northwest of Fort Worth, were initially hesitant about drinking “potty water or toilet water,” but they’ve realized it is one of the few alternatives left until the drought breaks, said city spokesman Barry Levy.

Mayor Glenn Barham says he’ll be “the first to take a drink.”

“I feel good about this. My family will drink it, my grandkids will drink it. I have no fears about this water,” he said.

“We’re excited, we’re hoping the TCEQ will rush the review process and we can get this water into our system,” Barham said.

The reuse plan is being closely watched around the world, said Daniel Nix, the operations manager for city utilities who Schreiber credits with guiding the project.

“It’s being watched by the EPA, the TCEQ and a whole host of municipalities. We’ve been contacted by the government of Israel; we’ve heard from Ireland. It’s drawing a lot of attention,” Nix said.

Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom calls the water reuse effort an “excellent move.”

“People joke about potty water but many cities discharge wastewater into rivers and lakes and it goes downstream to the next city. It’s a fact of life,” Gossom said.

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Nearby Archer City already releases its wastewater in Lake Arrowhead, the biggest of the three water reservoirs used by Wichita Falls, he said.

“I grew up in rural Archer County and I don’t remember teaching any of my cows to get out of the water when they do their business,” Gossom said. “We’d rather not think about it in those terms, but all water is recycled.”

Coping with a crisis

Since the relentless drought started three years ago, Wichita Falls has waged a remarkable conservation effort in the face of dauntingly dry conditions.

Overall water usage has been reduced by more than half, since “the water crisis” started, Schreiber said.

Resourceful residents have resorted to taking buckets along during showers and using the “gray water” on landscape plants.

Many are doing the same thing with dish and laundry water, Levy said.

Hardware stores and nursery businesses report a big uptick in interest in rainwater harvesting systems.

There’s even been a run on drilling private water wells within the city. Water from the region’s shallow but salty aquifer isn’t potable but it can help save landscapes and be used to water foundations.

The city also put some bite into its water-wise effort. From February 2013 to February 2014, the city issued 2,576 water violation citations, Levy said. Fines can reach up to $2,000.

The city also levied stiff surcharges for people using over 7,480 gallons per month, the average residential consumption.

The water restrictions have been a crippling blow for plant nurseries, landscape businesses and car washes in particular. Another visible casualty has been trees.

“There are dead trees all over the place,” Gossom said.

The city, which averages 28 inches of rain annually, only got 11 inches in 2011, 19 inches in 2012 and 23 inches in 2013, Nix said.

“2011 and 2012 were the first consecutive years below 20 inches in 114 years,” he said, noting that the three-year total amounts to the loss of more than a year’s rainfall.

Barham says it would likely take 10 inches of rain just to rehydrate the dry, cracked lake beds.

“It’s crazy how dry it is around here,” he said.

Since 2011, the city has steadily marched through the four levels of water restrictions in its drought plan.

The Stage 4 “drought disaster” phase that banned all outdoor watering went into effect on Nov. 15, when reservoir levels dipped to 30 percent capacity.

Last summer, during Stage 3 restrictions, water use peaked at 18 million gallons, down from a normal of 50 million gallons, Nix said.

Consumption is now averaging between 12 and 13 million gallons a day. Before the water crisis, it was close to 40 million.

“Our drought plan has worked. The citizens of Wichita Falls have embraced these water restrictions and it is showing,” Nix said.

Uncharted territory

Soon, when reservoir levels dip to 25 percent full, residents will have to embrace a new reality where the rules aren’t even set – Stage 5.

“There’s not a whole lot left out there we can curtail,” Schreiber said, noting that Stage 5 restrictions are still being devised.

Watering of home foundations is likely to be eliminated, he said. Cleaning vehicles at commercial car washes, now limited to six days a week, will be further reduced. Filling swimming pools with city water will also be banned.

Wichita Falls first talked about recycling wastewater in 1999, Barham said.

“It never got to the point where we even considered it. There was a lot of outcry by the public that we shouldn’t even consider it,” he said.

Instead, a specially equipped micro-filtration and reverse osmosis treatment plant was built in 2008 that allowed the city to utilize salty water from Lake Kemp.

The reuse project included constructing a 12-mile above-ground pipeline to get the effluent from the wastewater plant to the specially equipped water treatment facility.

“The reverse osmosis plant was the cornerstone for our project. If we didn’t have that in place we would have had to add it,” Nix said. “Everything was all here, except for the pipe to connect the two plants.”

Next up: cloud seeding

Barham and Gossom both express frustration at the slow pace of winning regulatory approval.

“We started this in April, 2012, and it has taken us two years to get there. That’s too long,” Barham said.

Complicating matters, Schreiber said, was that the “project doesn’t fit neatly into the box of regulations that exist.

“The TCEQ has been the biggest hurdle but they have been extremely cooperative. I think they know that once this camel gets his nose under the tent, there is going to be no stopping it,” he said.

“They want to make sure they get it right the first time.”

The project has cost $9 million but the city expects to recoup $6 million by eventually reusing the pipeline to reroute the 8 million gallons of wastewater discharge into Lake Arrowhead, the city’s largest reservoir.

“If we come out of this drought in a year or two and get our lake levels back up to 60 percent, we could shut down this project and get the wastewater back to Lake Arrowhead,” Barham said.

Meantime, Wichita Falls isn’t putting all of its water in one bucket.

The city has a six-month, $300,000 contract with a cloud-seeding contractor that started on March 1, Nix said.

“We have a meteorologist looking at conditions every day. Research indicates that over time you can get 15 percent more rain,” he said.

“These things we are doing are cheaper than building reservoirs, dredging lakes and drilling wells. We’re trying the methods that give us the most water at the cheapest cost,” Nix said.

Rain would be even better, Barham said.

“If conditions stay the same, if we don’t have a summer like 2011, we’ve got about two years worth of water. Hopefully we’ll get the rain.”

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