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Wichita Falls Sees Wastewater Recycling As Solution To Drinking Water Shortage

Shelley Kofler
Julie Spence of Wichita Falls says she trusts the city to adequately treat wastewater for drinking.

Wichita Falls could soon become the first in the country where half of the drinking water comes directly from wastewater.

Yes, that includes water from toilets. For some citizens, that's a little tough to swallow.

Mayor Glenn Barham says three years of extreme drought have changed life for 104,000 people living in Wichita Falls, which is about 115 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

“(There’s) no outside irrigation whatsoever with potable water. Car washes are closed one day a week.  If you drain your pool to do maintenance you aren’t allowed to fill it,” he explained. 

Credit City of Wichita Falls
Drought has dried up much of Lake Arrowhead, a primary water supply for Wichita Falls.

The mayor says citizens are pitching in and have cut their city’s water use by more than one-third.  Still, water supplies are still expected to run out in two years, which is why the city has built a 13-mile pipeline that connects its wastewater plant to the plant where water is purified for drinking.

That’s right: What residents flush down the toilet will be part of what’s cleaned up and sent back to them through the tap.

"It's gross"

“I think it’s gross,” said Marissa Oliveras as she ordered a glass of tap water with her sandwich at Gidget’s Sandwich Shack in downtown Wichita Falls.  

“I mean it’s recycled wastewater we could be drinking,” she said.  She plans to switch to bottled water.

Kira Smith saves money ordering tap water at the restaurant now, but says she’ll pay $1.89 for a bottle of water when the recycled wastewater begins to flow.

“It definitely grosses me out,” Smith said.  “I’m sure that they would clean it and filter it up to standards.  But it’s a mindset kind of thing. You know what I’m talking about?”

It's safe to drink

Barham says the city has undertaken a massive education campaign to reassure residents that the water will be clean and safe to drink, and to explain the science behind the treatment process. 

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Utilities Operations Manager Daniel Nix stands next to the 13-mile pipeline that will transport treated wastewater to the city plant. There, the water will be purified for drinking.

Water experts know it as “direct potable reuse,” something that’s been tried on a much smaller scale in Big Spring, Texas.  

But some people unceremoniously call it “toilet to tap,” a moniker that Utilities Operations Manager Daniel Nix says isn’t really accurate.

“The vast majority of water that enters a wastewater plant did not come from a toilet. It comes from sinks, and bathtubs and washing machines and dishwashers,” he said. Nix said less than 20 percent of wastewater comes from toilets.

Inside the treatment plant

Currently, wastewater here is treated and then emptied into the nearby Big Wichita River, where a natural cleansing process takes place. The water flows downstream to Lake Texoma, a big reservoir, where other cities treat it again before drinking it. 

Nix says his city will recreate that natural cleansing process at its treatment plant.

Nix shows off several buildings full of equipment that will soon take the city’s dwindling supply of water from Lakes Arrowhead and Kickapoo and blend it with the treated wastewater. It will be a 50-50 mix that gets extra chlorination, advanced filtering and reverse osmosis.

Nix says the extra treatment will eliminate unwanted minerals and pathogens like cryptosporidium and giardia.

“We just don’t have time to put the water out in a body of water, a wetlands, or lake and allow nature to take its course,” Nix said.  “Inside the treatment plant, we speed those processes up so rather than wait several weeks for UV rays from the sun to disinfect or kill bacteria we do it in the plant using chlorine. It takes a matter of minutes to do it instead of weeks.”

Mayor will take the first sip

At Gidget’s Snack Shack, Stephen Johnson is fine with what the city is about to do.

“If it’s a safe process and it’s potable, I don’t see an issue with it. It’s water,” Johnson said with a shrug. 

The restaurant’s owner, Julie Spence, says the city has done a lot of research and testing so she trusts officials to get it right. 

She says she has to.

“It’s either that or pack up and move," Spence said. "This is where I was born and raised and I’m not ready to close my business and pack up and move.” 

Barham says he’s reserved the right to take the first sip when the recycled wastewater begins to flow.

He’s optimistic that most of his neighbors in Wichita Falls will also raise a glass and drink.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.