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Water crisis in the twilight zone

Water crisis in the twilight zone

Wichita Falls Falls city officials are asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to approve taking 5,000 gallons of treated effluent from the wastewater system and mixing it 50/50 with reservoir water for use in the city's municipal water system.

They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Whoever said it first may have had a vision of the future, a time when prolonged drought caused the lakes and rivers and reservoirs to run dry, a world where the demand for water far outpaced supplies.

In this vision of the future the rains have all but stopped and the snow clouds are stingy. Everywhere people collect rainwater from roof tops when and where they can and rationing is an absolute way of life. Gone are frequent baths, and showers, watering lawns and washing cars are permanently outlawed. In this future world swimming pools are dry and abandoned and prayer seems to be the last remaining hope of desperate times.

When all the wells dry up, things quickly transform a thirsty world into a nightmare, one of shadow and sorrow as the searing heat of summer cooks the Earth, and temperatures spiral higher as thirst finds its way into every home. Fields dry up, crops refuse to grow and before long neighbors and friends are haggling over what little water remains.

In our perfect world this picture of such a horrible future seems little more than a far-fetched dream. But hidden in fiction one can often find truth, so as we travel down this imagined road of make believe we see a distant sign post up ahead, and suddenly realize we have somehow entered The Twilight Zone.

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Like living in a Rod Serling TV drama, a world of desperate water shortages is a future all of us would like to avoid. But escaping the inevitable is a monumental task, and water planners are warning that such a future is not only a possibility, but suggest we may already be traveling on a road that leads in that direction.

But, like the old saying, when the going gets tough, the human spirit has a way of rising to the challenge.

Just ask Wichita Falls water officials, who for the past ten years or so have been recycling waste water and funneling it back into the Red River. Now, city officials are asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to approve taking 5,000 gallons of treated effluent from the wastewater system and mixing it 50/50 with reservoir water for use in the city's municipal water system. If approved, when residents turn on the tap, know it or not, they will be using and consuming water that was once dumped into the city's sewer system.

When first approached with the concept, TCEQ officials required the city to conduct additional and exhaustive testing before a ruling could be made. Last week that testing period ended and now the issue will go before the full TCEQ Commission. If approved, Wichita Falls will become the first Texas city to blend treated effluent at such a high rate with treated reservoir water for public consumption.

Rationing stages

The water situation has become critical in Wichita Falls. The city depends on surface water collected at three area reservoirs. According to the city's water plan, five stages are in place and each triggers a new level of water restrictions. They include:

  • Stage 1: Drought watch
    When lake levels fall to 60 percent the city initiates a drought education effort, reduces watering by parks department to twice weekly, prepares structure for voluntary and non-voluntary water restriction program.
  • Stage 2: Drought warning
    When lake levels fall to 50 percent, outdoor watering is restricted to one day of the week, washing vehicles only allowed at commercial car washes, fund-raising car washes banned, water pressure from treatment plants reduced,  parks watering reduced to trees only. And implement water conservation surcharge for excessive use.
  • Stage 3: Drought emergency
    When lake levels fall to 40 percent, water conservation surcharges increase, golf course watering reduced, car washes required to close one day of the week, restaurants are prohibited from thawing food with water or cleaning kitchens with spray hoses, use of water features such as fountains in swimming pools is prohibited.
  • Stage 4: Drought disaster
    When lake levels fall to 30 percent, all outdoor watering is banned; home foundations can only be watered with soaking hoses; washing sidewalks, driveways or structures is banned; water conservation surcharge rates tripled; golf course watering banned; large industries required to conduct internal water audit.
  • Stage 5: The Final Stage
    When lake levels fall to 25 percent. City officials are currently devising the stage 5 restrictions; they are likely to include a ban on watering home foundations, further reductions in days of operation for commercial car washes and a ban on filling swimming pools.

Currently, reservoir levels are down to 26 percent, and city public works director Russell Schreiber says, if approved, the additional 5,000 gallons of water daily can make a huge difference in guaranteeing water availability in the drier months of summer.

"All the test results look outstanding. We don’t see anything that would prohibit the TCEQ from giving us the green light,” Schreiber said.

TCEQ officials say they hope the commission will make a ruling on the issue within the next 30 days.

Wichita Falls Mayor Glenn Barham says many of the community's 100,000-plus residents have been hesitant to warm up to the idea of adding treated effluent back to the local water system. But city officials say desperate times call for desperate measures, and that research and testing that has gone into this project has indicated the recycling procedure meets or exceeds Texas safe drinking water standards.

Saying he will be the first to drink a glass of the water from the tap, Barham says the latest required tests demonstrate the four-step recycling process is more than adequate to provide safe potable water.

Officials say all eyes are on the Wichita Falls project. In addition to monitoring by TCEQ, federal agencies, including the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are following the project, and interests from across the world have been making inquiries about the process in hopes of adopting similar water plans.

Daniel Nix, operations manager for Wichita Falls city utilities, says water officials in distant places like Ireland and Israel have been in contact with local engineers, and many cities across the nation are following developments.

While city officials say the use of recycled water is not new, they admit their plan takes the issue to a new level. But they say they have little choice. The city's comprehensive water conservation program has been applauded by many for years and has resulted in a drop in water demand by as much as half. But in spite of conservation efforts, it has not been enough.

Partnerships help conserve water resources

To a lesser extent, other Texas cities are already using recycling programs to reduce overall water consumption. El Paso treats its wastewater to produce potable water and a new plant in Big Spring is one of the first projects of its kind to use direct potable reuse technology to produce millions of gallons of water earmarked for Midland-Odessa. Other Texas cities, including Abilene, Brownwood and Lubbock, are recycling water

While the thought of toilet-to-tap water projects is difficult to warm up to, state and federal water officials agree that desperate measures will define how we use and conserve water for generations to come.

Most would agree that a world without water would be worse than any Twilight Zone plot ever developed. Before the wells run dry and the rivers and lakes disappear, extreme recycling measures don't sound so bad after all.


Also of interest:

Are more water regulations coming?

Water issue offers a lesson in humility

Kansas agencies working on 50-year water plan

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