Drinking Water Lessons from West Texas

Several cities in West Texas have a long history in wastewater reclamation, even using the water for drinking, due to the Texas drought. El Paso aims to build the nation's largest advanced purification project for direct water reuse.

3 minute read

September 12, 2018, 10:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

drinking fountain

Katherine Johnson / Flickr

Quartz's Brooklyn-based environment reporter, Zoë Schlanger, traveled to El Paso last month to take a deep dive into water treatment. "The technology already exists to treat human wastewater to drinking water standards; water engineers call it by the polite (if euphemistic) name of 'direct potable reuse [pdf],'” writes Schlanger.

But few city water utilities have been daring enough to try it on their customers, given its poor public image.

Indeed, "[t]he toilet-to-tap stigma is a big obstacle," reported not regulated by the Health Department,” stated the guide, “It hasn't been cleared to drink." [See related post on the treatment facility where local politicians do indeed drink the water].

Right now there’s only one city in America where people drink recycled water directly from a plant like this -- Wichita Falls, Texas.

Laura Martin reported for Water Online in September 2014 that the first direct potable reuse, or DPR, project was by the Colorado River Municipal Water District in Big Spring, Texas. 

After almost a year in operation, and after the rains filled the region's lakes, the Wichita Falls operation ended, reported Sara Jerome for Water Online in July 2015. The treated wastewater from the Cypress Water Treatment Facility then went from direct potable reuse, or DPR, to indirect potable reuse.

IPR can take on many forms. The water from the aforementioned Silicon Valley plant is sold for irrigation purposes and outdoor fountains. In Wichita Falls, the water is now sent to a lake where it is treated again before it can become drinkable.

El Paso's cutting-edge project

El Paso plans to take up where Wichita Falls left off, reported Marty Schladen in August 2015 for the El Paso Times, in that the goal is to use the water directly.

Anticipated to be open in 2020 at a cost of between $110 million and $150 million, the plant would add a crucial 10 million gallons per day — a little more than 9 percent of the utility's total demand on an annual basis.

It would seem the timeline for the  Advanced Water Purification Facility project has been delayed based on Schlanger's most recent reporting.

Now the city is seeking grant funding to shepherd a potable-reuse plant through the remainder of a design process; water-utility officials think they can break ground on the plant “in the next few years,” according to Joshua Moniz, a public affairs coordinator for the El Paso water utility. Within a decade, El Paso hopes its residents will be drinking reclaimed sewage water.

In short, El Paso, situated in the middle of the punishingly dry Chihuahuan desert is on situated in the middle of the punishingly dry Chihuahuan desert is on the cutting edge of water technology. It really has no choice.

"Upon completion, the El Paso Advanced Water Purification Facility will be only the second true DPR plant worldwide," according to Arcadis, the design and consultancy firm  which "conducted a nine-month pilot test of this concept to obtain Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approval (and will) establish design criteria for the full-scale facility."

El Paso Water already made drinking water history in  2007 when it "opened the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, named after its biggest congressional supporter," adds Schlanger. "It’s still the largest inland desal plant in the world, able to turn 27.5 million gallons of salty groundwater into drinking water every day."

Thursday, August 23, 2018 in Quartz

Single-family homes in a suburban neighborhood in Florida.

New Florida Law Curbs HOA Power

The legislation seeks to cut down on ‘absurd’ citations for low-level violations.

June 16, 2024 - The Guardian

Three colorful, large beachfront homes, one khaki, one blue, and one yellow, with a small dune in front and flat sand in foreground.

Florida Homeowners 'Nope Out' of Beach Restoration Over Public Access

The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Redington Shores, Florida are at a standstill: The Corps won’t spend public money to restore private beaches, and homeowners are refusing to grant public access to the beaches behind their home in return for federal assistance.

June 7, 2024 - Grist

Multistory apartment building under construction.

New Tennessee Law Allows No-Cost Incentives for Affordable Housing

Local governments in the Volunteer State can now offer developers incentives like increased density, lower parking requirements, and priority permitting for affordable housing projects.

June 10, 2024 - Nooga Today

Green meadow with water running through and trees on either side in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Meadow Undergoing Major Restoration

Rangeland recently acquired from private owners is being restored to a more natural state thanks to a purchase by the Trust for Public Land.

1 hour ago - San Francisco Chronicle

Large black SYV driving down city street with blurred background.

GAO to Investigate How Vehicle Design Impacts Safety

A lax set of rules around vehicle size, height, and other factors is partly responsible for the alarming rise in pedestrian deaths in the United States.

2 hours ago - Streetsblog USA

Worker in yellow safety suit holding up orange SLOW sign on road

New Orleans Faces $1 Billion Shortfall for FEMA-Funded Roadwork

After years of delays, cost overruns, and deadline extensions on a FEMA-funded street repair program, New Orleans officials face a massive funding shortfall and accusations of mismanagement.

3 hours ago - NOLA.com

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.