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We Love That Dirty Water

No rain, more gain for Wichita Falls water haulers.

By November 2014Comments

On a late September afternoon, Brady Blackmore stands at the business end of a few lengths of heavy-duty oil field hose, spraying a thirsty St. Augustine lawn in Wichita Falls’s Country Club Estates neighborhood with blasts of treated wastewater. Mounted on a gooseneck trailer behind his Ford diesel, twin pumps spray water from six 290-gallon tanks onto a yard whose owners can’t bring themselves to sacrifice it to the drought. When he finishes, he barely has a chance to drive a few feet before neighbors wave him down to inquire about his services.

Things were even more hectic in the depths of summer. “When the city shut off irrigation, I couldn’t even work, because people would keep walking up to me,” says Blackmore, a 29-year-old local. “I never advertised.”

The drought was all the marketing Blackmore needed. The local reservoirs have fallen to an unprecedented 22 percent of full capacity. This summer, the city declared a Stage 5 Drought Catastrophe, and the water department began piping treated toilet water directly to the city’s water treatment plant for further cleaning, rather than dumping it into the Wichita River. Months earlier, the city took aim at the most essential ornament of American home ownership, banning all lawn watering with city water. Under a brutal sun, the grass of Wichita Falls has withered.

That’s where Blackmore comes in, if you’ve got the cash to spend. On any given morning, a little before eleven, he and a handful of like-minded entrepreneurs line up and wait for the River Road Wastewater Treatment Plant to open. The plant has about 100,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater that it can’t send to the Cypress Water Treatment Plant; the temporary pipe the city has built between the two facilities just isn’t big enough to carry it all. So River Road sells the non-potable water to people like Blackmore. When it’s his turn, he pulls his rig up to the spigot and, for less than $5, pumps about 1,700 gallons into his tanks. In minutes he’s gone, on his way to delivering water to customers at a substantial markup. Checks or cash wait for him beneath doormats; on a really good day he’ll refill a handful of times and clear $1,000.

Blackmore has always done odd jobs around here—mowing yards or cutting bulldozed mesquite for firewood. He figures he doesn’t have a lot of options because of his criminal history: one night eight years ago, he was driving under the influence of alcohol on Texas Highway 71 in Travis County and collided with another car. The other driver was killed, and Blackmore spent two years in prison. “I don’t think I’ve filled out a job application since I was twenty-one,” he says. “Intoxication manslaughter is serious. That’s an anchor ready to sink you right off the bat.” Hauling water, which he began doing in January, is the best job he’s found, even though the days are hot and the water soaking his tennis shoes and socks carries a mossy funk.

And the demand doesn’t seem to be going away. As we drive through Country Club Estates, we spot water haulers on nearly every street and water tanks in nearly every yard. Emerald lawns bear signs that assure passersby, “Reclaimed water in use.” “The haulers are praying for it not to rain,” Blackmore jokes.

But rain isn’t the only thing that threatens his business model. With nothing but drought on the horizon, the city is building infrastructure for “indirect potable reuse,” which, in a few years, will enable the River Road facility to send all of its wastewater to water treatment plants. Daniel Nix, the city’s public works operations manager, says that will be the end of the line for the haulers. “The amount of water released for irrigation use,” he explains, “will be zero.”

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