Texas town closes the toilet-to-tap loop: Is this our future water supply?

Dan Weissmann Jan 6, 2014

Texas town closes the toilet-to-tap loop: Is this our future water supply?

Dan Weissmann Jan 6, 2014

Lots of us would probably rather not think too hard about where our drinking water has been. For instance, much of Houston’s water comes from the Trinity River, some of which is treated sewage effluent from Dallas and Fort Worth

But almost no one has taken the step of connecting sewage pipes directly to the drinking water supply. Until now.

With about 27,000 people, Big Spring is a decent-sized town for West Texas. It’s got a Walmart and a four-screen movie house.

But there’s no actual spring anymore. That dried up almost 90 years ago— around the same time that oil was discovered in West Texas.

It’s dry here. But so is a lot of the state–and drought has slammed wide swaths of Texas in recent years.  So why is Big Spring the site of this experiment in what experts call “direct potable reuse”? Here’s one clue:  In terms of customer satisfaction, the local water supply didn’t have a lot to lose.

“Nobody drinks the water here,” says Mary Jo Atkerson, proprietor of Big Spring Welding Supply.  “Nobody drinks it out of the faucet.”

“Hell no!  We don’t do that,” says Terry Sanders, age 54.  “I’ll bathe in it, but I won’t drink it. It’s too hard— it’s— it’s nasty.”

“It’s well-complained-about, that’s for sure,” says Chanel Castillo, age 20.

For years, people here in Big Spring have relied on filtered water. Many, like Atkerson, have filter systems in their homes.

Like many others, Sanders and Castillo buy water retail.  In their case, an early-December morning finds them filling jugs with filtered water at the Water Shoppe for 20 cents a gallon, using a self-serve machine on one side of the building.

On another side, Crystal Lopez’s family serves a steady stream of drive-through customers.

“Cars come through, and we’ll fill up their jugs and send them on their way,” says Lopez. Her younger sister, Emily Key, and their mother, Anastasia Key, handle everything from five-gallon containers that would be at home atop an office water-cooler to one-gallon jugs that recently contained milk and orange juice.

Last year, the city water that Big Spring residents avoid started to include treated sewage effluent.  

The treatment, at a brand-new, $14 million “raw water production facility,” is extensive. Water arrives there after initial treatment at Big Spring’s old sewage treatment plant.



The new facility treats that water with a heavy-duty filtration called reverse osmosis— the same process used by the Water Shoppe— plus two stages of disinfection and multiple stages of testing. Any water failing to meet the tests gets sent back to the town’s sewage treatment plant to start the process again.

Water that passes the test is drinkable, and arguably of higher quality than the water pulled out of nearby reservoirs.  However, before getting piped back to the homes and businesses of Big Spring, the “raw” water gets blended with reservoir water and the blend gets a final round of treatment in the town’s old drinking-water treatment plant.

John Grant, general manager of the Colorado River Municipal Water District, is the new system’s architect.   

And yes, he drinks filtered water at home too. “We’re not blessed, in West Texas, with really good-quality water,” he says.  “It’s got a lot of salt in it.  I mean, that’s all we got.”

It’s like the old joke about the bad restaurant:  The food is terrible.  Yes, and such small portions.  

Big Spring gets fewer than 20 inches of rain a year.  And the air is so dry, water evaporates from the reservoir at three times that rate. “So we pretty much start out in the hole already,” says Mr. Grant.

That strucural water deficit— the enormous gap between rainfall and evaporation— is why Big Spring has to pipe its sewage— albeit its rigorously-treated sewage—directly to the main waterworks.

Sending it to the reservoir, by way of the creek, would be more traditional.  And it wouldn’t work.

“If we put that water in the creek, it would evaporate,” says Grant.  “We’re actually creating more water.”

Grant’s system recovers 2 million gallons a day— about 40 percent of what the town consumes. The system actually reclaims a much higher percentage of the water it receives— 80 percent— but about half of the town’s water consumption never reaches the sewer system.  That’s the water for watering lawns, washing cars and other outdoor uses.

Grant started planning this system more than 10 years ago, before the recent years of super-drought, which made it appear more urgent. The nearest reservoir to Big Spring is currently 1.4 percent full.   

And it’s not the lowest in the state. Because of the drought, Texas voters recently approved $6 billion in new water projects.

The current five-year plan  doesn’t include much potable re-use. But when that plan was created, Big Spring wasn’t online yet.  No one had gone first.  

“It takes somebody—some local entity—brave enough to try it out,” says Robert Mace, of the Texas Water Development Board. “Then everyone else is looking over their shoulder. And then once they see it works: Boom. Off everyone goes.”

Already, three more places in Texas are actively exploring potable re-use projects: The town of Brownwood, the city of Wichita Falls, and the much bigger city of El Paso, with more than 600,000 people.  

However, getting their citizens on board could be a tough sell.

In Big Spring– where no one seems to drink the water– the re-use project appears to have flown under some people’s radar. About half the people I talked with there had never heard of it.  

That included Crystal Lopez, at the Water Shoppe. Here’s how she responded when I told her about it:

“Really,” she said. “I didn’t know that, that’s gross. That is gross. Wow.”

I explained how good the filtering was— the same filtering process she uses in her shop– plus the decontamination, the testing.

And the fact that lots of cities take their water from rivers that some other town has dumped sewage in.

No sale.

“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s— it’s disgusting.  I can’t think of another word.”

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