It doesn't take much to impress a water engineer. For Robert Mace, an administrator at the Texas Water Development Board, the highlight of the year was gulping down a tall glass of lukewarm water. "It could have used a couple of ice cubes," he says, but otherwise it was clean and refreshing.
To be fair, that was only the highlight of Mace's "water year"; he presumably has more interesting pursuits away from the office. And it probably wouldn't have been such a highlight if the drink was flavored with the human urine and feces it was so recently mixed with.
The water that so intrigued Mace came straight from the Colorado River Municipal Water District's newly opened, $14 million treatment plant in Big Spring that takes waste water, runs it through filters, and turns it into drinking water.
It's not the most mouth-watering process to think about, but reclaimed sewage is becoming an increasingly attractive option in Texas, much of which is still suffering from an epic drought. The reservoirs supplying the Colorado River Municipal Water District are ridiculously low, meaning an existing and readily available water source that can supply 10,000 people is attractive. Plus, residents now get to drink their beer twice.
Other water systems are contemplating similar projects. Brownwood has a waste water treatment plant in the works. Same goes for Wichita Falls. And it's not hard to see a scenario in which, with the region's population set to double over the next 50 years and no handy water sources available to quench everyone's thirst, North Texans, too, will be drinking their own (treated) urine.
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Before that happens, Mace and the Texas Water Development Board want to figure out the most effective and efficient way to safely get waste water from the toilet to the tap. Big Spring, Mace says, went to extremes in an effort to ensure customers the end product was safe. It puts the sewage through reverse osmosis, which uses a membrane to filter out the tiniest of particles and microorganisms, then through a microfiltration system, which does the same. Then, it's mixed with the raw water from reservoirs and put through the normal treatment process.
Some argue that microfiltration alone could achieve the same results at a lower cost, but there isn't a lot of data yet to back them up. TWDB announced Wednesday that it's undertaking a $300,000, two-year study to determine that and a number of other things, like the effectiveness of certain types of processes at sorting out organisms like giardia and cryptosporidium as well as chemicals like hormones and prescription drugs.
It's not that drinking treated waste water isn't safe. Mace, remember, had no trepidation about downing that glass at Big Spring. Besides, we're pretty much all drinking somebody's waste water already. Especially Houston, whose water supply would all but disappear were Dallas to stop flushing its toilets.
Rather, the study aims to better understand the process so the state can develop a set of best practices that water systems can follow, because it's inevitable that more and more will turn to waste water. At a certain point, treating waste water will become cheaper than building new reservoirs and pipelines. It's already there, after all.