More complicated than just toilet-to-tap, water reclamation helps sustain thirsty cities
Story by Leslie Lee
Every day and all around the world, water is recycled. From upstream to downstream, one city’s wastewater is eventually another city’s water supply.
But in order to conserve and better manage precious water resources, some Texas cities are using innovative water reclamation technologies to speed up and improve this process.
Water reclamation involves taking effluent, or treated wastewater, and using refining processes to make it suitable for a variety of water needs such as irrigation, aquifer recharge, industrial processes and even potable water.
El Paso leads the way
Thanks to water reclamation and conservation policies, the city of El Paso has become a desert city with a sustainable water supply. The El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) reclaimed water program is an example for municipalities across the globe.
“For many years people have come from all over to learn about what we do,” said Irazema Rojas, EPWU utility engineer. “We have received calls and visits from Australia, Mexico, Atlanta, Austin.”
EPWU serves about 200,000 residential and commercial customers and also operates one of the most extensive reclaimed water systems in Texas.
“Located in a desert, EPWU made a decision many years ago to think of reclaimed water as a valuable resource rather than a by-product that needs to be disposed of,” the EPWU website states.
EPWU maintains four wastewater reclamation plants, and each plant yields treated effluent for nonpotable use, suitable for customers to apply to parks, sports fields, landscape nurseries, golf courses, construction projects and many other situations. Some of the treated wastewater is used for industrial processes, and EPWU recharges some of it back into the aquifer. All of the plants meet Texas Commission on Environmental Quality water quality regulations, Rojas said.
“This program started back in the 1960s, when the city began using treated effluent to irrigate the golf course,” Rojas said. “And slowly the program became more aggressive, eventually using treated effluent for industrial and construction uses, in addition to irrigation.”
The program has grown over the years, and now 44 percent of the EPWU reclaimed water is used for irrigation, 37 percent for industrial processes, 19 percent for aquifer recharge and small percentages for construction.
Research conducted by the Texas AgriLife Research Center in El Paso in close partnership with EPWU has frequently provided scientific support for the reclaimed water program. Through continued research, the center has produced several reports on effective uses of reclaimed water and landscape management.
According to EPWU, since its water conservation ordinance was established in 1991, its conservation and reclaimed water programs have saved 231 billion gallons of water, which is enough water to fill the Sun Bowl 6,392 times.
Reclaiming water for drinking water
Starting next year, another West Texas city will join the other municipalities taking advantage of reclaimed water resources.
The Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD) will build a $13 million water reclamation plant near Big Spring that, unlike some other reclaimed water projects, will produce water for direct potable use.
“We’re taking treated effluent, normally discharged into a creek, and blending it with (traditionally supplied potable) water,” District Manager John Grant told Discovery News in August. In essence, the system speeds up what would naturally occur with the flow of discharged water through wetlands with more pristine results, Grant added.
In addition to four well fields, CRMWD currently depends on three lakes for its water supply: E.V. Spence Reservoir, which is at less than 1 percent of its capacity; Lake J.B. Thomas, which is at about 2 percent of its capacity; and O.H. Ivie Reservoir, which is at about 20 percent of its capacity.
The Big Spring Water Reclamation Project will provide 2 million gallons of water for the wide-reaching district, Grant told CNN in August.
“CRMWD looked at each charter city within the district and determined that the Big Spring project was the most economically viable,” said Todd Darden, Big Spring’s assistant city manager.
The project received some negative national news attention this summer for its plans to turn wastewater into drinking water, Darden said. “We had local meetings about the plan and those went well; we only received some negative comments when the story got picked up by larger media. “ It will be very good quality water—just as good as water out of our reservoirs and probably better,” Darden said. “But I always say that if it’s good enough for NASA’s astronauts, then it’s good enough for us.”
The value of reclaimed water
As proven by El Paso’s well-documented, long-term success, water reclamation technology has been effective for decades. Darden noted that Big Spring and CRMWD had considered reclaimed water as an additional drinking water source for the area as far back as the 1980s, but the cost was prohibitive at that time.
Now Big Spring officials are looking forward to making the water supply more secure, Darden said. While “toilet-to-tap” sometimes may get a bad rap, many Texans know the value of water and the value of water reclamation technology.
“When you live out here in the desert, any drop of water you can find is well worth it,” said Darden, who praised the work of CRMWD. “I thank God every day that I know we’ll have enough water, because of the water district.”
Rojas noted the sustainability and benefits of El Paso’s reclaimed water program.
“We are very proud of our system,” Rojas said. “Not only is using reclaimed water advantageous to businesses because it is cheaper than potable water, but it is also important because it increases a city’s ability to conserve water and therefore prolongs the life of the water resources.”