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wastewater

How much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

Whatever your answer to that question is, the real answer is that it could be quite a lot.

Years of Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes belching raw waste into residents’ yards and city streets have City Hall facing a federal decree that sources say could force the city to invest $5 billion in upgrades.

As in dozens of cities across the country, the looming Environmental Protection Agency mandate likely will force Houstonians to pay sharply higher water bills to fund the improvements.

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As is the case in Wood Shadows, many of Houston’s sewer overflows reach local bayous and breed bacteria. These violations of the Clean Water Act create health risks severe enough that experts advise against swimming in local waterways, 80 percent of which fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than face a lawsuit from the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act, city officials have spent the last few years negotiating a so-called consent decree, a binding agreement that specifies projects aimed at reducing spills by upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how they can avoid clogging Houston’s 6,700 miles of sewers, such as not pouring grease down the drain.

EPA officials declined comment, and city leaders have resisted discussing details of the talks, but three sources with knowledge of the negotiations say the efforts expected to be required under the mandate could cost an estimated $5 billion.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has acknowledged the negotiations are “significant,” and said he has discussed the decree directly with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and plans to soon meet with Houston’s Congressional delegation on the issue.

“We are not opposed to making improvements, but we want the costs to be reasonable and spread out over the next 20 years so we can avoid any dramatic spiking of ratepayer rates,” Turner said. “Negotiations are ongoing on all fronts.”

Brent Fewell, an environmental consultant and former top official in the EPA’s water division, agreed that getting more time to comply with a decree can curtail a rate hike. Still, he said, Houstonians should expect to pay more.

“These are big-ticket items. They’re not cheap, and it definitely has an impact,” Fewell said. “There are some communities that have seen as much as 100 percent to 150 percent increases in their water rates based on these consent decrees.”

Houston’s sewers have lagged since the city’s first postwar boom, with City Hall, critics say, tending to make fixes only when forced to by regulators.

Whatever sewage treatment plants could not handle in the 1960s was dumped straight into the bayous, making Houston for decades the region’s single worst water polluter. The Texas Attorney General took the city to court over the issue in 1974, securing a judgment that restricted Houston’s development until new plants were built.

Those investments did not end the spills, however, so another round of decrees spurred a mid-1990s effort that repaired a quarter of the city’s sewer pipes and upgraded many treatment plants and pump stations.

Even that $1.2 billion program didn’t fix the problem, leading to another 2005 state mandate that Houston is scheduled to satisfy this month. That mandate was to replace 1,800 miles of pipe, clean twice that much, and cut grease clogs by passing an ordinance requiring restaurants to clean their grease traps.

For a bit of extra credit, do some reading over at the city’s Wastewater Operations page. I’m reminded of a story I heard from the professor of an urban history class I took in college. He talked about how in New York, specifically in Manhattan, the upper classes lived farther north in the pre-indoor plumbing days, and thus were first in line to both cook and wash with, and dump their waste into, the Hudson and East Rivers. Those of lesser means, who lived south – that is, downstream – from there, were thus “literally eating shit”, as he put it.

Try to keep that in mind when you read this story, because it’s our sewer system and wastewater treatment plants that allow us to avoid a similar fate. Whatever the city negotiates with the EPA, the cost of building more capacity and fixing old leaks will be passed on to all of us, and no one will like it. If you want to blame someone for it, blame all the public officials og generations past that failed to maintain the city’s water infrastructure, and the voters who let them get away with it. It will not be much fun fixing this problem, but the alternatives are all much worse.

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

Reclaimed wastewater soon will irrigate the trim lawns and wooded parks of some Houston suburbs. Instead of being dumped into the bayous, some of it might even undergo more extensive treatment in order to flow from kitchen taps.

Economics is starting to trump the yuck factor of reusing water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks.

“It’s becoming more real than theoretical,” said Mark Latham, who oversees Houston’s two “reuse” agreements with golf courses and the growing number of queries to contract for city wastewater.

As suburban water providers aim to meet state benchmarks for reducing reliance on groundwater, they have cringed at undertaking costly expansions to draw more water from Lake Houston via the city system. With the 2011 drought still fresh in the minds of many, treating wastewater for landscaping has advanced beyond mere discussion in many Houston suburbs. Unlike other water sources, the availability of wastewater grows with the population.

“We’ve had clients look at reuse for a long time,” said David Oliver, a public law attorney who works with several utility districts. “As the price of water has gone up, people are realizing the economics of the projects that may have been unreasonable 10 or 20 years ago now are feasible from a cost standpoint.”

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Most water in the Houston area is pumped from underground aquifers or piped in from Lake Houston to treatment plants before flowing out of home faucets and sprinkler systems. After toilets are flushed, wastewater is sent to plants where it is minimally treated before being dumped into bayous along with rainwater, much of which eventually flows into Galveston Bay. Similarly, most of the water pumped from Lake Houston is treated wastewater that flowed downstream from Dallas and other cities.

Although reclaiming wastewater – also called recycling or reusing – remains rare in Texas, it has become more popular in recent years as drought-stricken towns have tried to meet local water needs. Wichita Falls was the second in the state to construct a costly treatment plant that takes waste­water “from toilet to tap.” Defying doubters, the city’s utility manager drank a full, clear glass while giving reporters a tour. San Antonio pioneered indirect reuse of wastewater decades ago, treating it for a variety of nonconsumptive uses.

I’ve discussed this before, and I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach. Certainly, it makes no sense to use clean, drinkable water on watering lawns and other similar uses. The main argument against wastewater reuse seems to be that it provides disincentives to conserve water. Be that as it may, this is a cheaper and surely more sustainable option than building a lot more water infrastructure for our region’s (and our state’s) growing population.

On “potty water”

I have three things to say about this.

Wastewater reuse in Wichita Falls has been in the works for years and would have happened with or without the drought. It was fast-tracked as the city deals with reservoirs that are only 25 percent full today. In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — not known for being a particularly strict regulating agency — is currently on the defensive for delaying the city’s project by asking for more testing.

Several other Texas cities — San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth among them — have been looking at such water reuse projects for decades, and some are hoping the plans might come to fruition in the coming years. Across Texas, treated wastewater is being used for everything from watering golf courses to making silicon chips.

Yet judging by the headlines on news reports about the Wichita Falls project, the city’s residents could be in for some sort of disgusting surprise.

“Brushing Teeth With Sewer Water Next Step as Texas Faces Drought,” read a Bloomberg News headline. National Public Radio wrote, “Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water.” Most recently, NBC’s Today Show tackled the topic, with a reporter noting, “Some residents think it’s just plain gross.”

Bloomberg News noted that many people are concerned about water contamination, comparing the Wichita Falls project to the example of Oregon water officials flushing 38 million gallons from a reservoir after a teenager urinated into it. “We’re not drought-stricken Texas,” an official there noted.

On that note, remember all the people guzzling beer and floating in the water out on Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which supply Austin’s drinking water. No one is suggesting flushing those bodies of water or implying that residents of the capital city are brushing their teeth with sewer water.

1. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I always assumed that much of our drinking water came from treated wastewater. I mean, wastewater has to go somewhere, and one way or another it’s going to wind up back in whatever river or lake or reservoir we use for potable water. Maybe it’s the number of steps between the two that makes the difference for some people, but I figure it’s all the same water anyway, so what’s the fuss about?

2. Of course, if the thought of drinking treated wastewater wigs you out, maybe we can talk about using it for agricultural or industrial purposes, or even just for watering your lawn. It really doesn’t make sense to dump almost a hundred billion gallons of drinkable water on grass and plants.

3. Besides, all of our water has been inside a dinosaur at some point, so why be squeamish about it now?

Adventures in water marketing

The headline on this story is about Texans’ increasing interest in recycling water. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there’s another way of describing it that maybe isn’t so appealing.

Experts say recycled wastewater will play a key role in satisfying the thirst of a rapidly growing population. While reuse now provides 2 percent of Texas’ water, state officials say that over the next half-century the drought-proof source will account for at least 10 percent of new supplies.

To reach the goal, state lawmakers may require at least 20 percent of any new funding for water-related infrastructure to go toward conservation or reuse. The requirement is part of House Bill 4, which would allow a one-time transfer of $2 billion into a new revolving, low-interest loan program for water projects.

“This is a robust and reliable source,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency. “Its future is very promising.”

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Before drought began gripping the state in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality typically approved fewer than 20 reuse requests from cities and water districts each year. The number jumped to 32 two years ago and 38 last year, with 25 applications already pending this year, the agency said.

Arroyo attributed the increasing interest in reclaimed water in part to the lingering drought, which covers 74 percent of the state. He also credited improving technology, which now is capable of turning sewage into water so clean it’s almost distilled.

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Water managers see wetlands as a reliable, less-expensive solution to more dams, aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water over long distances. Wetlands allow them to reuse water that they already paid at least once to store and purify.

For all the interest in toilet-to-tap technology, more new potable reuse projects will take the indirect route through wetlands, rather than go straight to the faucet, Arroyo said. Meanwhile, most water reuse will continue to be for irrigation, landscaping and purposes other than human consumption.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and venture that if you were in charge of an advertising campaign for water recycling, you might prefer to steer clear of the phrase “toilet to tap technology”. I mean, you probably don’t want people thinking too much about where that water originated. I know, I know, this is ultimately the way it goes for all of our water, with or without any fancy new technology. I suspect most people would rather imagine that their water all comes from a nice reservoir or a cool mountain stream or something like that. It may not matter that much if most of the recycled water goes to things like irrigation or decoration or other non-drinking purposes. I’m just saying.

Recycling water

The Trib continues its look at the present and future of water use in Texas with a story about reclaiming wastewater.

“Reclaimed water,” the term for cleaned-up wastewater that gets reused, currently provides a little less than 3 percent of Texas’ water supply, often for purposes like irrigating golf courses. The figure is projected to rise to 10 percent by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Reclaimed water “is a way to stretch our existing supplies and potentially avoid expensive infrastructure projects,” said Myron Hess, the manager of the Texas water program for the National Wildlife Federation. Putting potable water on grass is especially wasteful, environmentalists say.

When cities do not “reclaim” their wastewater, which is also called effluent, it generally gets dumped into creeks and rivers. Austin, for example, puts its effluent into the Colorado River, and wastewater from Dallas goes into the Trinity River (which ultimately helps supply water to Houston).

To some degree, Texas has been a leader on reclaimed water. The San Antonio Water System boasts of having the “nation’s largest recycled water system.” Some of that recycled water flows down the San Antonio River, at the heart of the city’s popular River Walk, and some goes to golf courses, parks or industry.

El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, built a pioneering project in the mid-1980s that injects treated wastewater into the Hueco Bolson aquifer, where it swirls around and mingles with existing supplies before eventually being pumped back up for chlorination and drinking. (The local water utility estimates that it takes more than two years before water comes back up after being sent into the aquifer.)

No point being squeamish about it. One way or another, it all eventually finds its way back to your water supply. For things like irrigation or some industrial uses, there’s no need for the water to come from the same source that feeds your kitchen tap. It makes all kinds of sense for water utilities to think in these terms. You can do something like this yourself on a small scale with a rain barrel or other clever ideas. It’s a lot easier than you think to use less and make the most of the water you have.

Two water stories

The future of Texas’ water supply sure is a hot topic in the papers these days. I hope that continues after we start getting normal rainfall again.

Story One is about desalinization:

For El Paso and a growing number of Texas cities, the question isn’t whether they have enough water, but what price people are willing to pay to make it drinkable.

Aquifers beneath the Chihuahua desert are filled with brackish groundwater, belying the seared landscape above. Salty water rushes down rivers. And the Gulf of Mexico offers a virtually unlimited supply.

For centuries, Texans had cheaper ways to quench their thirst. But population growth – up 20 percent over the past decade, to 25 million people, and predicted to almost double by 2060 – is driving up demand, just as the supply is shrinking. The latest draft of the state water plan predicts existing supplies will fall by 10 percent in the next 50 years.

But Texas has more than 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, enough to meet current demands for more than 176 years.

For many cities, the cost of desalination – up to four times that of other water treatments, sometimes even more for seawater desalination – is no longer a deal-breaker.

The state’s first permanent seawater desalination plant will open on South Padre Island in 2014. Until then, all of the state’s 44 desalination plants – most of them small, scattered across West Texas and the Rio Grande valley – treat brackish groundwater.

The El Paso plant is the state’s largest, capable of producing 27.5 million gallons of water a day for city customers and those on the Fort Bliss Army post.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said John Balliew, vice president of operations for El Paso Water Utilities, which worked with the U.S. Army to build the $91 million plant.

See here and here for some background. The good news is that there’s plenty of brackish water in Texas, more than enough to meet the needs of the growing population, at least in the drier western parts of the state. The bad news is that it costs more than fresh water to use, and I suppose no one really knows what if any negative effects there may be from sucking that water out from underground. The other good news is that the need to use a more expensive water supply ought to encourage conservation – using less is always cheaper than finding new supplies. Be all that as it may, I think we’re going to see a wave of desalinization plant construction, which means it’s just a matter of time till we get the first major scandal involving some kind of financial shenanigans having to do with such construction. That’s when you know an industry has really arrived in this state.

Story Two is about reclaiming wastewater.

Wastewater – the water that runs down the drain as you brush your teeth, wash dishes and clothes, shower and flush your toilet – will be increasingly important to Texas’ future. The 2012 state water plan predicts use of so-called “reclaimed water” will grow by about 50 percent by 2060, to 614,000 acre-feet per year, or more than 20 million gallons.

“It takes a little bit of getting used to,” said Midland Mayor Wes Perry, whose city already uses treated wastewater to irrigate the grounds of Midland College and will add it to its drinking supply in 2012.

“When you start talking about drinking water, that is uncomfortable,” Perry said. “But if you look at other places, they’re doing it. It’s a psychological thing more than anything else.”

California, Florida and a few other states already add treated wastewater directly to the drinking supply, but this will be a first for Texas.

I suppose I had always assumed that treated wastewater was part of the equation, so the “ick factor” mentioned in the story doesn’t affect me. We’ve actually been doing a little bit of this on our own, by putting a basin in the kitchen sink to catch water that we use when washing our hands, rinsing dishes, or dumping unused drinking or cooking water. We then use what we collect in the basin to water plants outside, since it’s perfectly fine for them. Baby steps, but I figure every little bit less that we use the hose to water outside is a win.

What do you think about this stuff? Does any of it bother you?