July 11, 2014

In drought-stricken Wichita Falls, a new source of water

Wichita Falls is now using a 50-50 blend of treated wastewater and lake water for its residents.

The water comes out of the tap clear.

There’s no odor, but it goes down with a slight chemical taste.

Or, as one Wichita Falls resident said: “It tastes kind of bleachy.”

But once Wichita Falls started doing a daily blend of lake water with 5 million gallons of treated wastewater, most folks in town seemed to accept it with a shrug.

When she took her first sip, Wichita Falls resident Katherine Smith didn’t seem to notice any difference.

“It tastes the same as Wichita Falls water always has,” Smith said. “It’s not really good tasting water … That’s why most people have always had bottled water in their homes.”

But to Smith and most Wichita Falls residents, the new source of water is desperately needed.

With Wichita Falls in the worst drought on record and its lakes hovering around 23 percent, any new source of water is welcome — even one that has been dubbed potty water by some.

“I’m actually feeling a little more optimistic than I did a few months ago that we will find a way to make it through the drought,” Smith said. “I think everyone, whether they will drink the water or not, realizes how important this is.”

The treated wastewater is transported by a 12-mile pipeline to the Cypress Water Treatment Plant, where it then is treated again. It can account for anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of demand on a given day, said Daniel Nix, utility operations manager for the City of Wichita Falls.

Last week, Wichita Falls was using about 12 million gallons per day.

“The water coming out of our wastewater treatment plant is actually cleaner than the lake water it will be mixed with,” said Nix, who added that the water goes through a four-step treatment process and then is treated again after it is mixed with lake water.

The success of Wichita Falls’ reuse program is being watched closely by other water providers. With Texas seemingly in a never-ending drought, it could be a preview of the future for many Texas cities.

“It’s being looked at in other states as well — it’s not just Texas,” said Fort Worth Water Department spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza, who is involved in state and national water organizations.

“The technology exists,” Gugliuzza said. “It’s more the public’s perception but the reality is: everybody’s wastewater ends up becoming somebody else’s drinking water.”

State officials initially reluctant

With the state going into its second decade of drier than normal weather, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said water reuse will likely become more commonplace.

“There’s not a whole lot of new water out there,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “The only alternative is to use less water and use techniques like desalination and treated wastewater.”

Big Spring already has a reuse program, blending 20 percent effluent into its drinking water. Other Texas cities, including Brownwood and El Paso, also have plans in the works.

In Wichita Falls, where they are doing a 50-50 split of treated wastewater with lake water, there was some hesitation by state officials.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality demanded rounds of testing before signing off and set a six-month time limit for the emergency project. And there’s no guarantee TCEQ will extend the project beyond that time frame.

“The TCEQ will need to evaluate any request and determine what the appropriate conditions are necessary for that request,” said TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow.

In its approval letter to Wichita Falls, TCEQ said the city would need to bury the pipeline and install an ultraviolet disinfection system if it wanted to go beyond six months. Nix said the city may seek a waiver on those requirements.

Around Wichita Falls, there are plenty of visible signs of the drought.

Praying for rain

Pray for Rain signs are commonplace.

In high-end neighborhoods, signs are common in yards saying they are using well water or non-potable water to maintain landscapes. In some yards, sprinkler systems now have plugs where fire hoses can pump directly into them.

Even though recent rains had greened up yards, water haulers were still doing a brisk business around town.

Mark Steel, owner of Green Touch Lawn & Landscape has seen his business transformed into a water hauling business since the drought began.

With a former competitor, Cattie Jackson, owner of Shade Tree Nursery & Landscape, and several other investors, they created a water hauling business that has brought as much as a million gallons of water per week into town from private wells and a private lake outside the city.

Among their customers are major commercial buildings in town and the city-owned water park. They have also filled swimming pools and were talking last week to several school districts about watering football fields.

For a price, Steel’s company will come by and spray a yard once week. For even more money, they’ll tap into residents’ irrigation systems and place storage tanks at people’s homes. Steel wouldn’t divulge his prices, but acknowledged that many are spending thousands of dollars to maintain their landscapes.

Both Steel and Jackson say as much as 40 percent of Wichita Falls’ residents are using contractors to supplement their water supply.

“You had people in this town who had invested a quarter-million dollars in their landscape,” Steel said. “We are providing a service since the city cannot sell as much water right now.”

Sandy Godfrey is one of those customers.

In her backyard, two 3,000-gallon tanks sit beside her fence.

Godrey said she has learned the value of water and how much she was using.

“We hope to never have to go back to city water so that we will be a good steward of the city’s chlorinated water,” Godfrey said

Since the drought began in the fall of 2010, Godfrey has become far more water-conscious. She and her husband have gone to Texas Agrlife Extension courses. They plan to install gutters that will capture the rain water and pump it into their storage tanks.

“Texas is in trouble,” Godfrey said. “Why not use our rainwater off the house that’s already there?”

She no longer has flowers but now has herbs planted around their trees. She also keeps buckets in the showers to capture water.

As for drinking treated wastewater, Godfrey had some qualms.

“I had some worries at first, but I have friends who have a chemical engineer in the family and she did a whole semester on that,” Godfrey said. “She has assured her mother-in-law that we will be drinking cleaner water than what we’ve been drinking before because of reverse osmosis. I’m over it. I’m OK with it. Now I’m hearing we may be at the forefront of it.”

Drought has taken a toll

For Katherine Smith, who co-owns Smith’s Gardentown with her brother, Steve, the drought has taken a huge toll on the 65-year-old family business.

They have five acres of greenhouses that now sit empty. And most of the retail space is now barren.

“Our sales are down 80 percent,” Smith said. “You can’t go much lower than that and still be in business.”

Last year, they closed for the summer but realized the expenses kept mounting whether they were open or not. But they have dropped from 25 full-time employees to four.

Yet Smith, who had been involved with a group of civic leaders that tried to assist the city on its water woes, said she now believes residents are getting the message.

While there is plenty of talk around town about residents who picked up and moved because of the drought, Smith said the sense of panic from some residents has lessened with the new source of water and recent rains. Even though she estimates that the family business can only survive another year with the current drought conditions, she is more hopeful about the city’s future.

“I think more people get it now,” Smith said. “Of course I want to see our business survive but, more importantly, I also want to see the city survive. And I feel like we’ve got a better chance now.”

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