Texas City Prepares to become First U.S. City to Convert Sewage into Water for Homes

Friday, April 25, 2014
Filtered waste water flows into a Wichita Falls treatment pond (photo: Torin Halsey, Wichita Falls Times Record News, AP

Wichita Falls has been going through a three-year drought that is worst than anything recorded since the 19th century. The Texas city of more than 100,000 residents has tried everything from spending money to seed clouds to posting signs urging everyone to “pray for rain.” But now Wichita Falls is going one step further than any municipality ever has to survive a drought—by recycling sewage and pumping it back into homes.


Other towns have cleaned up their sewage water for urban reuse. But those cases involved sending the treated sewage water into a lake or reservoir before piping it into the city’s water supply.


If it gets state approval, Wichita Falls will become the first U.S. city to fill people’s taps with water directly from a treatment plant. About five million gallons a day will be converted and sent back into the city, which will meet about a third of its water needs. The rest will come from traditional water supplies.


Public works officials insist the reclaimed water will be completely safe to drink.


“You have people who say, ‘Ewww, I am drinking someone else’s toilet water,’” Teresa Rose, deputy director of Wichita Falls Public Works, told Bloomberg. “But when you think about it, everyone downstream is already drinking someone else’s toilet water.”


But many residents aren’t buying the PR campaign, which includes public meetings and videos providing messages of reassurance.


The plan “is a bit grotesque,” Pastor Bob McCartney of First Baptist Church told the news service.


Others, like Ronnie Deford, say they plan to stock up on bottled water. “I don’t trust politicians at any level,” the local mall manager told Bloomberg. “I’m not going to believe them even if they tell me it is good.”


Water well driller George Berre understands people’s apprehension, but thinks they should just get with the program. “Nobody is excited about taking a leak and seeing it come back at you in the shower,” he told the Star-Telegram. “But since God created the Earth, it’s pretty much been the same water ever since then. It’s been used and reused if you think about it.”


Witchita Falls’ bold foray into this uncharted territory may open the way for other thirsty cities to directly use converted sewage.


Cities in California, Florida and North Carolina are also considering direct reuse, according to Zachary Dorsey, a spokesman for the WateReuse Association in Virginia, which includes utilities, government officials and researchers.


Converting sewage into drinking water is indeed the wave of the future, Calvin Finch, director of the Water Conservation and Technology Center in San Antonio, Texas, told Bloomberg. “It’s not something that’s pleasant to think about,” he concedes. “You have to educate people to the idea.”


That may not come easy. Officials in Portland, Oregon, recently decided to dump nearly 40 million gallons of drinking water from the city’s primary reservoir because a local citizen urinated in it.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Brushing Teeth With Sewer Water Next Step as Texas Faces Drought (by Darrell Preston, Bloomberg)

Wichita Falls Looks for Other Sources of Water (by Bill Hanna, Star-Telegram)


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