The Effluent Society

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

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