Wichita Falls is still waiting for state approval to begin tapping its supply of treated wastewater, but this city 100 miles northwest of Fort Worth is already thinking about what comes next.
If it gets approval to recapture and recycle 5 million gallons of effluent, Wichita Falls believes the city will have about a two year supply of water if the drought doesn’t let up.
So that is forcing this city of 104,000 to study where it would go for water if the lake levels at its three reservoirs — Lake Arrowhead, Lake Kickapoo and Lake Kemp — keep dropping. The lakes are close to plummeting to a combined capacity of 25 percent, which will prompt the city to declare a drought catastrophe and impose Stage 5 water restrictions.
“We’re hoping we can cycle out of this drought, but you’ve always got to think about the worst-case scenario,” said Teresa Rose, deputy public works director for the city of Wichita Falls.
Wichita Falls has looked at Lake Texoma, Lake Bridgeport and Waurika Lake in southern Oklahoma. They’ve also studied nearby aquifers as a possible source.
None are ideal. Lake Texoma has zebra mussels, Lake Bridgeport is too far, and Lake Waurika is across the state line in Oklahoma, where there are also serious drought problems.
“The thing about drought emergencies is there’s really no plan out there for a community of our size,” Rose said. “We are treading new ground.”
The costs of building new pipelines or hauling water by truck or train are all expensive — and that doesn’t begin to deal with the issue of acquiring new water rights or getting permission from the state to transfer water from one basin to another.
All water providers who enact drought restrictions are required to update the agency every time they enter a new stage of drought, said Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Andrea Morrow.
“The agency and others help these systems identify options to extend and supplement supplies,” Morrow said.
“Our understanding is that this is one of several different possible near-term supplies that they are considering,” said Assistant General Manager Dan Buhman. “If it looks like this is their best option and we have available supply, we would be glad to help our neighbor in such difficult circumstances.”
Looking for hope in better planning
The sense of unease is growing around Wichita Falls as residents try to grapple with how serious the situation is becoming.
Katherine Smith, one of the owners of Smith’s Gardentown in Wichita Falls, has helped form a committee of local business leaders, dubbed H2O Now, that wants to help the city find answers for its water needs.
Initially, Smith was convinced that the city was doing little to find new sources of water.
“When I started out I was really angry, but my attitude has changed,” Smith said. “It was really more of understanding what the city is going through.”
But Smith said there are two distinct camps in Wichita Falls.
“We have to convince one group that the problem is serious while trying to convince the other the city is working on the issue and not to panic,” Smith said. “You’ve got people who don’t read the newspaper or watch the local TV news who get all of their information from Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and really don’t know what the facts are.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s Gardentown continues to suffer.
“Three years ago, we had assets in the bank, we had 25 employees, and we were paying ourselves a salary,” Smith said. “Three years later, we’re not paying ourselves anything, and we’re just barely hanging on.”
Her brother, Steve Smith, who is running the 65-year-old nursery, said they are still selling a few plants but acknowledges business is down more than 50 percent from a few years ago.
“Normally, we would be selling truckloads of sod, and now we aren’t selling any at all,” Steve Smith said. “We’ve got a few people coming in and buying plants who have well water, but most people aren’t going to do that when they can’t water them at home.”
For now, they plan to keep the nursery open, but they were forced to shut it down last summer when business dwindled to nothing. Steve Smith left town and worked as a manager at a Midland nursery, where they had far more water.
The city also has a six-month, $300,000 cloud-seeding contract to coax more rain out of the clouds.
“A lot of people don’t believe in it, but I think it’s worth a shot,” Steve Smith said. “I think it may have helped us with the one good rain we’ve had this spring.”
Tarrant water district talks
Stage 5 will prohibit the filling of swimming pools and close carwashes two days a week. There are also increased surcharges for residents who use more than 7,480 gallons per month. If the lake levels reach 20 percent, the carwashes must close.
As residents anticipate tougher rules, rainwater harvesting equipment has become a common fixture around homes. Water haulers and well drillers have also seen business boom.
“Oh my God, wells are popping up all over town,” said water well driller George Berre. “It’s getting kind of scary. Everybody I know is putting a giant water tank in their driveway or their back yard. With us about to go into Stage 5, it’s pretty much down to flush the toilet, take a shower, wash the clothes and that’s about it.”
Rose, the deputy public works director, said most residents have complied with the restrictions. On average, they have issued two to three tickets per week.
For its long-term needs, Wichita Falls also hopes to build the long-discussed $228 million Lake Ringgold project near the Clay County town of Henrietta.
Wichita Falls has had preliminary talks with the Tarrant Regional Water District about being a partner. Rose said any decision about moving forward on the project is still two to three years away.
“You’re looking at something that will take at least 20 years to build,” Rose said. “We have been looking for a partner, but we could very well decide to do it alone.”
Tarrant Regional’s Buhman acknowledged that the Lake Ringhold talks have taken place but said: “At this point, we are still in the exploratory stage.”
For its immediate needs, Rose said Wichita Falls hopes to start using recycled water by May 1. Morrow, the TCEQ spokeswoman, said the agency has 30 days to review the project once it receives a final report, but “we have not yet received a completed report.”
City officials insist they’ve given the state all they should need. Rose said the report was “hand-delivered to TCEQ on March 28, 2014,” and that a follow-up was sent April 10.
“All lab results have been better than expected,” Rose said.
The four-step recycling process would provide more than a third of the city’s current daily water usage. It would consist of 50 percent wastewater with 50 percent reservoir water.
The idea of using recycled wastewater gives many residents pause, but Berre, the well digger, said most residents are coming around given the city’s dire circumstances.
“Nobody is excited about taking a leak and seeing it come back at you in the shower,” Berre joked. “But since God created the Earth, it’s pretty much been the same water ever since then. It’s been used and reused if you think about it.”