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Water-Reuse Projects Move Forward, Despite "Toilet-to-Tap" Concerns

Several Texas cities have plans to implement potable reuse projects, which put treated wastewater through extra chemical and biological processes before it eventually becomes part of the drinking supply.

Odor Control tanks stand outside the Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wichita Falls, on Friday, January 25, 2013.

WICHITA FALLS — The idea of turning treated sewage into drinking water may give some people pause.

But with lake levels dropping below 40 percent of capacity as of Tuesday, this one-time oil boomtown plans to move ahead with the technology. The city hopes to produce 5 million gallons of water a day next year with potable reuse technology, which officials say is safe.

“There was probably a lot of reservations about reuse water projects when we first discussed it in the late ’90s,” Mayor Glenn Barham said. Now, with the drought, he said people have “realized we’ve got to take steps to make our water supply stable.”

The city is one of several in Texas pursuing reuse projects. This spring, a $14 million plant in the West Texas hamlet of Big Spring will begin turning treated wastewater into drinking water and distribute about 2 million gallons of it daily to the Midland-Odessa area. Brownwood recently received approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to build a reuse plant. Abilene and Lubbock are in the early stages of looking at the technology.

“People are paying very, very close attention to what Texas is doing with its potable reuse initiatives,” said Zachary Dorsey, spokesman for the WateReuse Association.

In direct potable reuse, treated wastewater goes through additional chemical and biological processes and extensive filtration and then usually mixes with the regular drinking water supply before going through normal drinking water treatment.

The Big Spring plant will be the first of its kind in the nation. El Paso and Orange County, Calif., also have pioneering reuse projects, but their treated wastewater gets sent through an aquifer before being pumped up for further cleaning. At Big Spring, there is no aquifer step.

Neither TCEQ nor the Environmental Protection Agency has produced regulations for water reuse. The Texas Water Development Board has hired an engineering firm to provide guidelines.

Health experts are confident about the safety of drinking reused wastewater that has gone through proper treatment processes, said Jeff Mosher, executive director of the National Water Research Institute, a California nonprofit. The taste is unlikely to be different from other drinking water.

Critics, who sometimes call potable reuse “toilet to tap,” still have doubts.

“I’ve had experience with people who pour an incredible variety of chemicals down their drain,” said Christopher Stephens, a rheumatologist in Brownwood. He said the reuse project was pushed through too hastily and that the city should have first pursued more aggressive conservation measures.

In Wichita Falls, officials expect TCEQ approval soon for their project. The city already treats brackish water from a nearby lake to drinking-water standards, so much of the treatment infrastructure exists. A pipeline to connect the wastewater and drinking water plants will cost about $9 million, and the city plans to expand the reuse system later, said Daniel Nix, Wichita Falls’ public utilities operations manager.

Above average rain would stabilize the city’s surface water supply. But “you can’t go buy a rain,” Nix said.

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