For Wichita Falls, the use of so-called “potty water” during the drought was a lifesaver.
While others may have been a little squeamish at the thought of drinking treated wastewater, Wichita Falls’ residents embraced the option out of necessity.
During the worst of the drought, which dried up lakes in the Wichita Falls area, the treated wastewater helped the city of 104,898 survive.
“We got letters from residents thanking us for saving the city,” said Daniel Nix, utilities operations director for the city of Wichita Falls, bout 115 miles northwest of Fort Worth. “I think by the time we started using it last summer, most people were on board.”
Called direct potable reuse or DPR, the technique also attracted attention from drought-stricken California, where thirsty cities are looking for options.
Nix spoke at water conferences in Los Angeles and Stanford University in March and also took part in a May teleconference that included California elected officials.
“I think the biggest lesson is that it can be done technically and the public will accept it,” Nix said. “That’s the problem they're having in California right now. They’ve proven it can be achieved. It’s convincing the public it is safe and getting the proper regulatory approval.”
But now, behind the 32.05 inches of rain the Wichita Falls area has received this year, the “potty water” experiment has run its course. Last week the city cut off the 12.5-mile pipeline that allowed city officials to blend a 50-50 split of treated wastewater and lake water at its Cypress Water Treatment Plant.
‘Hate to see it go’
It will be replaced by another, more permanent program called indirect potable reuse, where the treated wastewater will be pumped directly into Lake Arrowhead.
“It was little bit of a sad moment turning the DPR off,” Nix said. “We were able to do 100 percent of what our intent was. I was very proud of it but I just hate to see it go. But the IPR is set to come online and will provide even more water to Wichita Falls residents.”
By shifting to indirect reuse, Wichita Falls will go from a maximum of 5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day up to 10-12 million gallons per day.
It will take up to 2 years and cost about $30 million to shift the pipeline to Lake Arrowhead and upgrade the wastewater treatment plant.
“When we proposed direct reuse to TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, it was just going to be temporary,” Nix said. “It was an emergency situation. We were working on plans for indirect and direct reuse on parallel paths.”
On the day the direct reuse program ended, a representative from the Santa Clara Valley Water District in California was on hand to observe.
Colleen Valles, a spokeswoman for the wholesale water provider that serves a population of about 1.9 million in the San Jose area, said Santa Clara Valley hopes to have an indirect reuse program within the next five years. For now, Valles said the recycled wastewater is being used for irrigation and industrial uses but not for drinking water.
‘It’s night and day’
With the lakes in the Wichita Falls area now 100 percent full, compared to a dangerously low 22 percent in early May, attitudes have changed dramatically.
“It’s night and day,” said Steve Smith, co-owner of Smith’s Gardentown, which has been in business for 66 years.
After struggling to stay open, Smith has seen the garden center’s business rebound. The business had the busiest June and July on record after seeing sales plummet 80 percent during the height of the drought.
Business isn’t all the way back but Smith his fellow Wichita Falls residents have turned a corner.
A year ago, there were fears that people might move away because of the depleted water supply. Wealthy residents were shipping in water to keep their lawns green while some worried about the town’s overall future.
“Everybody’s attitude has done a total flip-flop,” Smith said. “Real estate sales are way up. I think everybody is optimistic now.”
Both Smith and Nix said the drought has had a lasting imprint on Wichita Falls residents.
Since watering restrictions were lifted in June, daily usage has climbed to about 16 to 17 million gallons per day. But that’s down from the 30 to 35 million gallons per day consumption before the drought.
“People are conserving much much more,” Smith said. “Just like the generation who lived through the Great Depression and were pennypinchers for the rest of their lives, I think we’ll be water-conscious for the rest of our lives.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698