Cooling Off With a Nice, Tall Glass of Toilet Water

A Texas town becomes the first to recycle wastewater for drinking
Portland, Ore., dumped more than 38 million gallons of treated water after a man was accused of urinating in a reservoir Photograph by Steve Dipaola/Reuters

Pastor Bob McCartney of First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Tex., tries his best to love his neighbor as himself. But even he draws the line at drinking water that once went down his neighbor’s toilet. The city of about 104,000, suffering the worst drought in 140 years, will soon become the first in the U.S. to treat household sewage and pump the water right back into residents’ homes. “The idea is a bit grotesque,” says McCartney, who’s led prayer vigils for rain. People in town say they’ll buy more bottled water and try not to think about what’s flowing through their pipes when they bathe, brush their teeth, and make soup.

A sun-baked ranch town that hosts the Hotter’N Hell Hundred endurance bike ride each August, Wichita Falls is awaiting final state approval to begin recycling 5 million gallons a day starting in May, says Teresa Rose, deputy public works director. That’s about a third of what the town uses. Rose says the water will be safe and that all traces of sewage will be removed. Household wastewater will first go to a plant that filters out solids, the same way it’s now treated before being piped back into the Wichita River. Next, microfiltration will remove additional waste, followed by reverse osmosis to destroy any remaining contaminants, including pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets. In the final step, the water will go to the same plant that cleans lake water, where it’s chemically treated to kill pathogens. Add standard amounts of chlorine and fluoride, and it’s ready for the faucet.

“You can take any water and turn it into drinking water,” says Joseph Cotruvo, a Washington water consultant who wrote clean water standards during 25 years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “There is the technology out there to take out everything.”

Sewage will increasingly become a resource, says Calvin Finch, director of the Water Conservation and Technology Center in San Antonio. “You have to educate people to the idea.” Cities in Texas, California, Florida, and North Carolina are also considering so-called direct reuse plans. It won’t be easy to overcome the ick factor. Astronauts in the International Space Station turn urine back into drinking water. In Israel, more than half the water used in agriculture comes from treated sewage, according to the Israel Water Association. Yet officials in Portland, Ore., still decided to dump more than 38 million gallons of treated water after a man was accused of urinating in a reservoir on April 16.

Wichita Falls has banned outdoor watering and stopped golf courses from using municipal water. “Pray for Rain” signs adorn parched lawns. The city is spending $300,000 this year to seed clouds, hoping that will help to refill its two diminished lakes, which are at 26 percent of capacity.

None of that is likely to forestall the day when the sparkling clean but nonetheless dreaded water begins flowing from Wichita Falls faucets. Ronnie Deford, who manages the city’s Corner Emporium Antiques Mall, says there’s no way he’ll let that water pass his lips no matter how pure city leaders say it is. “I don’t trust politicians at any level,” he says. “I’m not going to believe them, even if they tell me it’s good.”


    The bottom line: Beginning in May, Wichita Falls plans to pump 5 million gallons of treated wastewater back into homes each day.

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