Darron Leiker understands water shortages. And Wichita.
The city manager of Wichita Falls, Texas, is a Shocker, attending college here.
“How ’bout that basketball team?” he asked.
Leiker, like Wichita officials, runs a city in need of a new water source.
And like city leaders here, he is turning to what is commonly — and sometimes charitably — called water reuse: treating sewer water and turning it into drinking, or potable, water.
There’s a yuck factor, as Leiker puts it: People aren’t excited about the idea of drinking “potty water.”
The idea has drawn concern from some Wichita residents, but strong opposition has not developed in Wichita Falls.
“People here know we’re desperate,” Leiker said. “They don’t want to run out of water.”
Addressing the uncertainty
Several communities, primarily in California, use a variety of technologies to remove impurities from sewer water, making it available for treatment and reuse.
Wichita Falls will start a $13 million temporary reuse plan late next month, complete with 12 miles of large, above-ground black pipeline connecting the city’s sewage and water treatment plants.
The state of Texas isn’t ready to sign off on a permanent plant-to-plant reuse plan for drinking water. So Wichita Falls officials intend to eventually route treated sewer water through Lake Arrowhead to give nature a shot at purifying it. Plans call for a $30 million 20-mile pipeline to the lake. Reusing the current pipeline will save about $6 million, making the cost of the two water projects $37 million for Wichita Falls taxpayers.
The idea with the most traction on the Wichita City Council is a permanent plant-to-plant reuse project that would turn treated sewer into water for drinking or perhaps for industrial uses.
Wichita officials have asked the state to consider permitting a permanent water reuse operation, although there are no regulations to handle water reuse, said Miranda Steele, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“We’ve been in touch with the director of the KDHE water quality division, and for some time he’s talked about if we go forward with potable reuse that some regulations would have to be better defined,” said Alan King, Wichita’s public works director.
In fact, King said state officials are examining how California regulates water reuse and have been receptive to Wichita’s water problems.
“The state has some work to do to get where they need to be to provide us a permit, but rather than stand in our way, they’ve been cooperative in their posture,” he said.
City Council member James Clendenin said he’s concerned the costs for a potable water reuse system may be too high.
“But I’m an advocate for thinking outside the box,” Clendenin said, “because somebody else is using this water we release downstream from us.
“It’s happening all over the country, and the water will be cleaner than the water coming out of our taps.”
Council member Jeff Longwell said he’s an advocate of water reuse, to a point. He does not support reuse for drinking.
“I think there’s a great opportunity to use reuse for commercial uses – if we can get it right – golf courses and other irrigation uses,” Longwell said. “Once you pursue those options, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot left for potable water. You can find significant reuses that help you with the water supply without getting into the yuck factor.”
Wichita Falls is in the midst of a record-breaking drought that began in 2011.
The city averages 28.5 inches of annual rainfall. Its water sources — lakes that were full in 2010 — now sit at 26.9 percent of capacity.
Rainfall has been way off:
2011: 16 inches below normal.
2012: 9 inches below normal.
2013: 7 inches below normal.
2014: 2 inches below normal.
“It’s like someone took a whole year’s rainfall away from us,” Leiker said.
This drought is uncharted territory, Leiker said. The city’s all-time low annual rainfall mark had been 18 inches over years that included the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and record Texas droughts of the mid-1950s.
Until 2011. Twelve inches of rain. One hundred days with temperatures at 100 degrees or higher, followed by 50 days over the century mark in 2012 and 32 in 2013.
“We believe we’re in a new drought of record because of 2011 and 2012. It’s not something the chamber of commerce trumpets,” Leiker said. “Desperation changes a lot of things.”
Wichita Falls’ water
Here’s another measure of Wichita Falls’ water crisis: Before 2011, the city treated and sold 8 billion gallons of water a year.
Last year, with stringent water conservation measures in place — outdoor watering is banned — the city treated and sold 5.7 billion gallons.
“No trees, no grass, nothing,” Leiker said. “That’s how you conserve 35 to 40 percent of your water.”
Wichita Falls has no aquifer supplying it water, as Wichita does. It draws water from three surface reservoirs —Arrowhead, Kickapoo and Kemp — that are now three-quarters empty.
The reservoirs are plagued by evaporation.
“Today, for example, we’ll use about 13 million gallons of water,” Leiker said. “We will lose that much out of the lakes today, in the late winter, and in the summer, we’ll lose 40 to 50 million gallons of water a day.
“That’s a cycle we cannot keep going.”
How business views the water crisis
Water is certainly on the radar of Henry Florsheim, who runs the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Bill Haley, who manages the local PPG plant.
“From my perspective, you have to trust the people who’ve been hired to solve problems like this, that they’ll do the right thing,” Florsheim said.
“And eventually, it’s going to rain, right?”
“Look, government’s job is to keep us safe,” Florsheim said, “to provide businesses a reason to relocate here, to provide the infrastructure for people to live and businesses to function. This is an infrastructure project. You’ve got to have it.
“Ask yourself: What’s the alternative?”
Haley’s company is going to get a boost in the fall from the water reuse idea: In a move separate from the potable water plan, PPG will receive gray water — or treated sewer water — from the city to use in its cooling towers.
Nonetheless, the new drinking water source is “good for our employees,” Haley said.
The water issue hasn’t hurt Wichita Falls business, Florsheim said.
“We haven’t had any companies tell us they’re not coming because of the water shortage, but the uncertainty is always an issue when you’re trying to plan business expansions,” he said.
Selling the solution
Leiker said his city has launched an intensive communications effort to sell the water reuse project. The key is informing residents.
“One of the biggest obstacles you have to get over is that psychological ‘yuck’ factor,” he said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every community. It works for us because we have no other options, and this is the quickest and cheapest project available.”
With that said, Leiker is a believer in potable water reuse.
“The science of it works,” he said flatly. “The water we take from our lakes is a lot worse than the discharges from our plant, and I’d imagine you have the same situation with Cheney (Reservoir).
“We’ve committed to our people to treat our wastewater at a high level, and then treat it with microfiltration and reverse osmosis, then blend it with the lake water and treat it another time conventionally.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that this water is safe to drink. It’s just the psychological barrier people have.”