The Effluent Society

In the midst of an unprecedented drought, Wichita Falls is turning to a once unthinkable source to slake its thirst.

June 2014By Comments

Rancher Kenneth McAlister at Lake Iowa Park on April 23, 2014.
Photograph by Darren Braun

As Kenneth McAlister drives down the buff caliche roads of Wichita County, he points out the changed landscape: Receding stock tanks wreathed with hoofprints. Dust whipping over a naked field and its failed cotton crop. Prickly pear multiplying like a virus, covering this country in a way it never has before. “It makes me wonder if the desert’s on its way,” he says.

McAlister’s family has farmed and ranched Wichita County for four generations now. He works alongside his sons in the fields, and he hopes someday his grandchildren will join them. As recently as 2010, that still seemed likely. In December of that year McAlister harvested a basket-buster of a cotton crop. The lakes that sustain 150,000 people in nearby Wichita Falls and beyond were filled almost to capacity.

And then the rain stopped falling. In the summer of 2011, one hundred days of triple-digit heat scalded the pastures and depleted the reservoirs and stock tanks. Crops failed and ranchers sold off their cattle. Economic losses tallied in the billions. McAlister has been ranching closer to the bone ever since. He reduced his herd from 600 head to 425, to keep the pastures from being grazed down and to stretch the water supply a little further.

Since then, the drought has eased in much of the rest of Texas. But it has maintained its hold here. Between 2010 and this year, the area logged the driest three and a half years since record-keeping began, more than a century ago. 

Ranchers and farmers were the first to catch the worst of the drought, but eventually the people in Wichita Falls began to feel the pain too. Three reservoirs provide the city with water: Lake Kickapoo, Lake Arrowhead, and Lake Kemp. Shari Thomason, co-owner of Kickapoo Fishing Camp, has been pulling blue cat, channel cat, and crappie out of the water here for more than thirty years. Recently, she has watched helplessly as piers have been marooned farther and farther from the water’s edge and as floating docks have sagged in dry inlets. “This is the lowest we’ve ever seen,” she says. “We don’t have no water on the south end.” That’s bad for Thomason’s business, but it’s also bad for the city folk who depend on Lake Kickapoo’s water.

Over the past year, the 100,000 or so citizens of Wichita Falls have begun to comprehend the depth of their crisis and have committed themselves to doing whatever it takes to claw back out. Customers have slashed consumption by more than half during the summer months, public works director Russell Schreiber says, from an average of nearly 50 million gallons a day down to 17 million. A ban on outdoor irrigation was imposed in November—a death sentence to the crew-cut expanses of St. Augustine around town. Sheppard Air Force Base, one of the largest municipal water customers, has installed low-flow fixtures and is considering alternative sources. In February the city hired a pilot—a Frenchman named John Renoir—to seed clouds with silver iodide and hygroscopic salt in hopes of encouraging them to release their water. But you can’t seed a clear sky. 

None of these measures have turned out to be enough. When the lakes dip below 25 percent—and they will soon—the city will move from Stage 4 Drought Disaster water restrictions to Stage 5, the precise details of which were a matter of conjecture until April, when the city government decided upon them. Among other things, the city’s outdoor swimming pools won’t be filled from the municipal supply and the car washes around town will be forbidden to use city water two days a week—or seven days a week if levels dip below 20 percent.

It’s a set of restrictions that, like this drought, are without precedent in Wichita Falls. The residents have been asked to change the way they live—to leave behind the days of plenty and adapt to a new reality. A city may survive for a time without electricity or natural gas, but water is the lifeblood of civilization. We need it to drink, cook, and flush away excrement, the public health hazard that bedeviled our ancestors for millennia and continues to kill millions every year in the undeveloped world. The extremity of need in this part of Texas is so profound that Wichita Falls plans to turn this ancient relationship with human waste on its head—by drinking treated toilet water. 

On an early April morning, Schreiber strides across the grounds of the River Road Wastewater Treatment Plant in size fourteen ostrich-skin boots, explaining how he plans to keep the city from becoming a ghost town. This is his corner of Texas—he grew up in the German farm country just to the south, in Windthorst—and he feels the weight of his responsibility acutely. Schreiber walks to a basin that is churning with chlorinated water from Wichita Falls’s toilets, showers, dishwashers, and sinks. “We don’t have an aquifer we can tap and get fifteen million gallons a day out of,” he says. The city draws its water exclusively from the nearby lakes. “Every lake within a one-hundred-and-fifty-mile radius is in the same shape ours are.”

For decades, the River Road plant has discharged treated water into the Wichita River. But once the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signs off on the project, a 32-inch, high-density polyethylene pipe will carry wastewater from River Road twelve miles southwest to the Cypress Water Treatment Plant, where it will undergo further processing. The pipe, black and shining in the sun like a water moccasin, lies half-submerged in the murky water between the banks of Holliday Creek. It runs past the old clapboard houses near the plant and past the country club and golf course, where signs placed at regular intervals along the fence line reassure passersby: “Well Water in Use.” It cuts through the mesquite thickets crowding the banks and past a withered Lake Wichita, whose bed is exposed like a wide arroyo’s, stippled with bird and feral hog tracks.

Back in 1999, in the midst of a lesser drought, the city drew up plans to reuse the water produced by its toilets, but the proposal provoked enough of an outcry that it never came up for a vote. Heavy rains soon fell, and Wichita Falls moved instead to build a treatment plant capable of processing the brackish water from Lake Kemp. But with the lake’s water currently near the 20 percent mark, the city’s denizens now see the wisdom in a method of conservation they once recoiled from. Last summer, the city council unanimously approved an $8.4 million contract to begin construction and improvements on the wastewater treatment system without a single member of the public speaking in opposition. 

Wichita Falls is an early adopter of this method, but not a pioneer. Two other cities engage in toilet-to-tap reuse. One is Windhoek, in Namibia, and the other is Big Spring, in West Texas, which built a new treatment plant last year. Big Spring’s water supply will be, at most, 20 percent wastewater. In Wichita Falls, about one third of the potable water issuing from the city’s faucets will have recently swirled down its drains and then passed through the Cypress plant’s reverse-osmosis membranes and batteries of microfiltration tubes. 

If there’s any squeamishness about drinking treated toilet water, the city isn’t hearing about it. “My first response was ‘Oh no, I won’t be drinking it. We’ll use bottled water,’ ” says Mike Mason, who services water pumps around Wichita County. “But assuming it passes all the state tests, we’re at a point now where we have no other options.”

“They understand they’re running out of water,” says Daniel Nix, Schreiber’s utilities operations manager. “We don’t have anybody standing up in council meetings and saying, ‘No way.’ What we are hearing is ‘Why isn’t this done already?’ ”

But even drinking filtered toilet water may not be a permanent solution to the city’s problems. At some point, Wichita Falls is going to need some rain. Forecasters, Schreiber notes, are predicting a band of warm water across the equatorial Pacific—El Niño—that may bring heavy rain to Texas again. “I hope to God they’re right,” he says. But no one knows if the storms will make it this far north. 

To the east of the city, a thunderhead, dark and ominous, piles up as high as a mountain range. Perhaps it contains the kind of gully-washer capable of pulling Wichita Falls, if only briefly, back from the brink. But it’s too far away to do the city any good. The storm clouds pass by this dry country, darkening other pastures, replenishing other lakes, while the “Pray for Rain” signs in town fade in the sun.

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