The city of Wichita Falls in Texas is awaiting a decision by state regulators that would allow them to recycle treated toilet water and turn it into drinking water via a purification process. Although, as city manager Darron Leiker says, “there’s a yuck factor” involved because people are not thrilled about the idea of drinking “potty water,” he is hoping that the plan will be approved.
The drought in Wichita Falls is so severe that the two lakes that provide water to the city are only 26 percent full. After three years of reduced rainfall, the city is 34 inches behind on much-needed precipitation and Leiker says the people know city leaders are “desperate” to find another source of water. Even so, treating sewer water so that it can become potable water is a concept that is sure to create a nose wrinkle and a moment’s pause even by those both physically and financially affected by the drought.
The city of Wichita Falls has already employed the technique of cloud seeding in which certain chemicals are dispersed into the atmosphere to increase cloud condensation. They have also put in place a Water Conservation and Drought Contingency Plan. Residents and business owners are aware that the city is under a “Stage 4 Drought Disaster” and have been instructed to conserve water in every way from household use to lawn, garden and car washing. At the same time water rates have gone up as water use has gone down in order for the city to continue to fund state and federal mandates. In addition a three-dollar surcharge per unit of water has been imposed on those that exceed the ten-unit limit.
Citizens and business owners of Wichita Falls have asked why the water fines are so high. An official “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) document provides the answer that the fines are designed to “discourage discretionary water use” so that people will have enough water for “health and daily living.” It is noted in the same document that the city of Wichita Falls only receives a portion of the funds generated by the fines and that $64 of every fine is actually paid to the state of Texas.
The “Indirect Potable Reuse” project, or in layman’s terms the purification process of turning toilet water into drinking water, that city managers are hoping to have approved will come at a cost of $35 million. If approved it will take wastewater from the sewage plant and recycle it to Lake Arrowhead at a rate of 12 to 16 million gallons of water every day and the project is estimated to take 3-5 years to complete.
Wichita Falls is not the only city in Texas suffering from drought restrictions and in fact, approximately 85 percent of the state is facing “shrinking water supplies.” Even Lubbock, a city nicknamed the “land of underground rain” is dealing with water woes not only in a lack of supply but in drafting new conservation restrictions and, like Wichita Falls, city managers there are taking a hard look at unconventional water sources.
Due to the statewide drought cities across Texas may, by necessity if not by choice, have to transition to a “culture of conservation” when it comes to water use. This will greatly affect those in the agriculture industry who are already struggling to keep crops and livestock thriving as the water pressure in wells has dropped. In turn, the effect of the drought on agriculture will influence the costs of market goods and consumers will be hit not only with increased water rates and potential fines but an increase in their household budgets as well.
Like the city of Wichita Falls, cities across the state of Texas may have to implement previously unpalatable plans to increase water resources. Desperate times call for desperate measures and, like other states including California that have already utilized “toilet to tap” purification methods, these plans could include both the recycling of brackish water and the reclamation of sewage waste to provide necessary drinking and potable water to citizens.
By Alana Marie Burke
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