State of the Planet

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In Dry Texas, Recycled Water Looks Better and Better

As the drought in Texas continues with no end in sight, some cities are turning to innovative water alternatives in an attempt to maintain quality of life as they know it.  The new mindset includes viewing waste water as an asset.

San Antonio River Walk

In San Antonio, in south-central Texas, one of the main tourist attractions is the charming and beautifully landscaped River Walk area in the city center.  Over the past fifty years, about 2.5 miles of the meandering river and its tributaries have been developed for walking, boating, dining, shopping, culture, and entertainment.  In the current drought, however, by rights the river would not be running – it would be dry as a bone.  What would a river walk be without a river?  They haven’t had to find out.

A recent report by NPR explains where the water comes from; San Antonio is using treated sewage water to fill the San Antonio River.  The city used to pump 5 million gallons a day from the underground Edwards aquifer to keep river flowing through dry periods, but the city and the surrounding area depend on aquifer water for virtually all domestic, agricultural and industrial uses.  Every gallon of recycled water is a gallon that can stay in the ground until needed.

San Antonio also uses recycled water for golf courses, parks, theme parks, university landscaping (including Trinity University, my alma mater), and industrial cooling.  Some major businesses with local facilities, such as Toyota and Microsoft, are using water from the state of the art sewage treatment system initiated in 1996, instead of groundwater.

The Dos Rios Water Recycling Center in San Antonio produces about 50 million gallons of treated water per day. Photo: Edwards Aquifer Website

Water conservation awareness and regulations mean that average citizens are doing their part, too.  Even though they don’t have access to recycled water for home use, they have reduced average per person consumption of potable water from 200 gallons a day to 130 gallons.

San Antonio isn’t the only city in Texas taking advantage of recycled water.  El Paso, Austin, Amarillo, Lubbock, and others are using recycled water for landscape and industrial purposes.  Some of the largest metropolitan areas, though, such as Dallas and Houston, are doing little with water reuse.

So far none of the Texan recycling systems are producing water for human consumption.  If the drought continues as predicted, they may have to follow California’s example and complete the cycle, returning treated water to the kitchen tap.   The city of Big Springs, Texas, is currently constructing a $13 million treatment plant that will process waste water to a potable standard.  Can the rest of Texas be far behind?

Learn More:

History of Water Reuse in Texas (PDF)

Safe Application of Reclaimed Water Reuse in the Southwestern United States (PDF)

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Analisa Nazareno
Analisa Nazareno
12 years ago

Another fact, not mentioned in the NPR story, is that last year, the San Antonio Water System also inaugurated the nation’s first biogas recycling refinery. SAWS was the first to partner with a commercial natural gas company. So, it is the first to recycle all three products from the water recycling process: water, solids, and biogas. In doing so, the area’s residents benefit in two ways: 1. the company receives a royalty for the biogas, so SAWS is generating income and reducing production cost and 2. SAWS reduces the area’s overall CO2 emissions, because it no longer burns the biogas through large flares.

Here’s the story link: