Drought-plagued Wichita Falls pours glasses of recycled wastewater

By Andy Rieger, CNHI News Service, Mineral Wells Index, TX, 8/28/14

WICHITA FALLS, Texas — Daniel Nix believes drinking water should be judged by its quality, not its history.

As operations manager for Wichita Falls' public utilities division, Nix is charged with supplying clean drinking water to this drought- plagued city of 104,000. He oversees a process of blending lake water with effluent from the city’s treated wastewater plant, retreating it and then sending it to customers.

The city uses nearly 12 million gallons of water each day, about 5 million of which come from effluent that was formerly discharged into the Big Wichita River, which eventually flows into the Red River and then into Lake Texoma.

The switchover began in early July after months of planning, state and federal testing and public education.

“Forty eight hours ago, this was entering the wastewater treatment plant as raw sewage, untreated, and that’s what we’ve done with it,” says Nix, pointing to a tank of seemingly clean water swirling in a filter before it is mixed with lake water for final treatment.

“We’re not doing anything different. All we are doing is taking a jumbled puzzle and putting the pieces together,” he said.

Wichita Falls is one of the first large cities in the Southwest to reuse wastewater - a process already done in parts of Florida, California and other states.

In Norman, Okla., city officials are prepping the local utilities to be the first in Oklahoma to reuse treated wastewater. Unlike Wichita Falls, Norman plans to pump treated effluent to eventually flow into the Lake Thunderbird reservoir. Engineering studies are ongoing.

In Wichita Falls, the city built a 13-mile, “temporary” pipeline to carry treated effluent to the water treatment plant for microfiltration and reverse osmosis before it could be blended with water from the city’s depleted reservoirs. The pipeline was built in four months using existing stormwater channels and rights-of-way.

“We wanted to get this done in a hurry. We didn’t have a lot of time,” Nix said.

Even before the drought years, Wichita Falls was already looking long-range before the drought years. It seeded clouds in hopes of producing rain. City officials at one time considered buying water out of Lake Texoma or constructing another reservoir.

The city also reduced daily use through voluntary and mandatory conservation.

“If I had tried to do reuse when the lakes were at 100 percent, this would be a no-go project,” Nix said.

Like Oklahoma, plans for reuse in Texas were held up at the state level, with regulators unsure how to write guidelines. Another Texas community, Big Spring, has begun reuse on a smaller scale.

“They (regulators) put a lot of hoops out there for us to jump through, and some of the hoops were on fire,” Nix said. “Toward the end, the citizens were wanting to know what’s taking so long.”

Even with reused water augmenting supplies, rates have increased. Evidence of the drought remains.

Residents remain under a mandatory total outside watering ban. Car washes run limited schedules. Sports fields remain dry. Residents can drip-water their home foundations for four hours each week.

Thousands of cyclists who descended on Wichita Falls for the annual "Hotter-Than-Hell" ride last week had been informed of the change in the city's water supply. Few seemed to notice a difference.

Nix said state regulators have been nervous about the city's reused water.

"They want this to work, and I want this to work," he said. "It could be a real career killer if it doesn’t.”

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