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Texas plant will turn sewage into drinking water

/ 08:32 PM August 11, 2011

FORT WORTH — In parched Texas, it’s often easier to drill for oil than to find new sources of water.

So after years of diminishing water supplies made even worse by the second-most severe drought in state history, some communities are resorting to a plan that might have seemed absurd a generation ago: turning sewage into drinking water.

Construction recently began on a $13 million water-reclamation plant believed to be the first in Texas. And officials have worked to dispel any fears that people will be drinking their neighbors’ urine, promising the system will yield clean, safe water. Some residents are prepared to put aside any squeamishness if it means having an abundant water supply.

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“Any water is good water, as far as I’m concerned,” said Gary Fuqua, city manager in Big Spring, which will join the cities of Midland, Odessa and Stanton in using the water.

When the water finally reaches the tap, Fuqua said, its origin is “something I wouldn’t think about at all.”

Similar plants have been operating for years in Arizona, parts of California and in other countries. Water experts predict other American cities will follow suit as they confront growing populations, drought and other issues.

“It’s happening all over the world,” said Wade Miller, executive director of the WateReuse Association based outside Washington. “In some places … resources are down to very low levels, and this is one of the few resources available.”

The Colorado River Municipal Water District in West Texas began considering a wastewater recycling plant back in 2000 and broke ground last month on the facility in Big Spring, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Lubbock. When finished late next year, it should supply 2 million gallons (7.5 million liters) of water a day.

The timing couldn’t be better. This year’s drought has made a bone-dry region even drier, causing crops to wither and animals and fish to die off by the thousands.

At least one of the three reservoirs in West Texas may dry up if the drought persists through next year, as climatologists have predicted could happen. That means the district’s water supply could be reduced from 65 million gallons (246 million liters) a day to 45 million gallons (170 million liters), said John Grant, the water district’s general manager.

“We have limited water supplies in Texas, and you have to turn to other sources of water,” Grant said.

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The new system could actually improve the taste of the region’s water by removing the minerals and salt that give it a distinctive briny flavor, he added.

The idea to recycle sewage isn’t new. Fort Worth and other cities across the nation have long used treated wastewater to water grass and trees and irrigate crops.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been drinking recycled urine and sweat since 2009 — and consistently given the water good reviews.

For years, NASA had been working on equipment that would enable astronauts to recycle their wastewater for drinking, cooking and bathing. The system was launched to the space station in late 2008, and it took several months to conduct enough tests — in orbit and on the ground — to ensure the water was safe to consume.

Since the space shuttle fleet was retired last month, the space station’s recycling system is needed more than ever. Shuttles can’t deliver fresh water, and the agency says astronauts will need such recycling systems on future missions to an asteroid and Mars.

The slightest suggestion of urine in drinking water can make people uneasy.

In June, officials in Portland, Oregon, sent 8 million gallons (30 million liters) of treated drinking water down the drain after a man was caught on a security camera urinating into a reservoir. City leaders said they didn’t want to distribute water laced, however infinitesimally, with urine.

The wastewater recycling process is long and complex. The first steps remove salt and impurities such as viruses and even traces of medicine. Then the wastewater is channeled into a lake or reservoir, where it’s blended with fresh water and eventually gets pumped into a water-treatment facility. There, it undergoes several more rounds of cleaning, disinfection and testing before finally reaching home faucets.

When the project was presented several years ago, there were no major protests during public hearings, Grant said. Most people don’t mind the idea once they understand that the treated water is safe to drink, he said.

“Folks out here have accepted it because they understand what the value of water is,” Grant said.

In California, the West Basin Municipal Water District in southwest Los Angeles County started treating wastewater in the 1990s because it had been importing 80 percent of its water. Using recycled water has not only cut down on importing costs but also helped the environment by eliminating the need to dump sewage in the ocean, officials said.

In Orange County, California, a similar project started several years ago now provides 70 million gallons (265 million liters) a day, water that is considered nearly as pure as distilled, Miller said.

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TAGS: Agriculture, Business, Community, Construction, Culture, Drought, Future, Infrastructure, investment, politics, Population growth, Recycling, Sewage, Texas, Urine, Wastewater, Water, Water source, Water treatment
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