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Texas Town Turns To Treated Sewage For Drinking Water 242

Posted by timothy
from the says-something-about-the-west-texas-average dept.
Scientific American reports that Wichita Falls, Texas has taken an unusual step, precipitated by the years-long drought that Texas has faced: it's using treated sewage for drinking water. From the article: To launch what it calls its "Direct Potable Reuse Project," the city pipes water 12 miles from its wastewater treatment plant to this treatment facility where it goes through microfiltration. A pump pulls water through a module filled with fibers that removes most of the impurities. Then it is forced through a semi-permeable membrane that can remove dissolved salts and other contaminants. The process, called reverse osmosis, is used by the U.S. military, in ships and in the manufacture of silicon chips. The water then gets blended with lake water before going through the regular water treatment system. ... At 60 cents per 1,000 gallons, it's far cheaper than any other source of water, [Wichita Falls' public works director Russell] Schreiber said. ... He said there have been few complaints so far. A glass of the finished product, sampled at a downtown restaurant, tasted about average for West Texas.
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Texas Town Turns To Treated Sewage For Drinking Water

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  • not like the wild animals and fish don't piss and shit into our water

    who drinks straight from a lake or river?

    • by mysidia (191772) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @01:46PM (#47438837)

      not like the wild animals and fish don't piss and shit into our water

      The concern is not piss and shit --- it's synthetic chemicals, such as rubbing alcohol, medications, petrol/motor oil, ethylene glycol; pesticides, fertilizer, and materials containing heavy metals or other toxins, that folks sometimes flush down the drain.

      Some of these chemicals may be non-particulant, solvate in water, and have similar physical properties that water has.

      • by fireduck (197000) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @02:05PM (#47438931)

        Assuming the process is something akin to the Groundwater Replenishment System [gwrsystem.com] in Orange County, CA, those shouldn't be a major problem. I'm too lazy to look up the treatment plant in this story, but I'd guess that the article leaves out a few steps in the treatment process, including some sort of advanced oxidation process. At the GWRS in CA, that would be a hydrogen peroxide / UV step that oxidizes the crap out of anything that might make its way through the RO process -- which isn't much, except for possibly neutrally charged, small molecules. Further, it if it's a well run wastewater collection system, there should be source control measures in place to minimize a lot of nasty stuff, like heavy metals and toxins, as that throws off advanced wastewater treatment processes as well.

        • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @02:38PM (#47439093) Homepage

          Or just plain ol activated charcoal. My sailboat has an RO system with a charcoal canister that I replace twice a year. Bigger systems have more complex pre filters. I'm sure that the system in TFA is at least cleaner than any river water or shallow well system. Possibly not as pure as a deep artesian system but if it passes EPA criteria, it's going to be pretty clean.

          Really Slashdot, RO systems are old hat. You can buy them on Ebay. Soon they'll be in breakfast cereal.

          • by creimer (824291)

            Soon they'll be in breakfast cereal.

            A cereal RO system to remove antibiotics and steroids from cow milk? Oh, my.

      • by RabidReindeer (2625839) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @03:00PM (#47439189)

        not like the wild animals and fish don't piss and shit into our water

        The concern is not piss and shit --- it's synthetic chemicals, such as rubbing alcohol, medications, petrol/motor oil, ethylene glycol; pesticides, fertilizer, and materials containing heavy metals or other toxins, that folks sometimes flush down the drain.

        Some of these chemicals may be non-particulant, solvate in water, and have similar physical properties that water has.

        My local water company sends out an annual quality report and I'm pretty sure that the stats they report include information on levels of most of these. And we're getting ours mostly from a deep aquifer.

        • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

          My local water company sends out an annual quality report and I'm pretty sure that the stats they report include information on levels of most of these. And we're getting ours mostly from a deep aquifer.

          What is the level of estrogen in your water?

      • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

        The concern is not piss and shit --- it's synthetic chemicals, such as rubbing alcohol, medications, petrol/motor oil, ethylene glycol; pesticides, fertilizer, and materials containing heavy metals or other toxins, that folks sometimes flush down the drain.

        Medicines are a big part of that mix also. Especially estrogen and it's mimics. lot's of goodies in the water, some times from discarded pills, some teims from pissing. There is even some thought that this has been part of the issue of men "growing boobs" that's been going on for some years now. Between the Phytoestrogens we've been eating in larger and larger amounts, (soybeans, peas) and the Mimics in Bisphenol A plastics, and the estrogenated water we're drinking, men are growing their own set of hooters

        • Popular Science just ran an article about Pharma in the drinking water, with a nice chart about how much water you would need to drink to get *one* pill worth of X drug. As it turns out, it takes years of drinking nothing but tap water to get a single dose of any of the detectable pharmaceuticals that make it through into tap water.
      • by AK Marc (707885)
        Giardia comes from animals, and is more dangerous than the things you "fear" that come in drinking water.
        • by mysidia (191772)

          Giardia comes from animals, and is more dangerous than the things you "fear"

          Giardia is a microscopic particulant and 99% will be removed with a 1 micron filter. Combine with disinfection using Chloride dioxide, and you have a very effective treatment.

          It is much easier to safely eliminate the Giardia threat than medicines/chemical liquids such as alcohols which pass right through a filter.

    • by maeka (518272) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @01:47PM (#47438845) Journal

      not like the wild animals and fish don't piss and shit into our water

      The wild animals don't tend to piss and shit birth control hormones and other still quite bioactive medications.

      • The drugs are often exotic molecules we've cooked up for the purpose; but hormonal birth control exploits the same hormones that would naturally show up, since those are the ones that there are receptors for and that cause the desired changes. The quantity that a dense human population will put out is something quite different; but the chemistry won't be markedly different between humans and other placental mammals.
    • by gbjbaanb (229885)

      pretty much everyone. Water that is treated is stored in reservoirs that are sent directly (with a little extra filtering and bleaching) to your tap.

      Mineral water out a bottle is even worse.

      but that said, this is the way its supposed to be. You don't want to live in a sterile bubble, you'd never be able to leave it if you did. A little bit of what you don't fancy does you good :-)

      but though a reservoir is a lake, its not the same as the ones filled with untreated water - they're full of bad stuff, mostly pr

  • by Bugler412 (2610815) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @01:45PM (#47438835)
    This really isn't much different than what nature would have ultimately done with the water right? Just accelerated mechanically. Not much different than what we would have to do for long duration space travel or colonization either.
    • by sumdumass (711423)

      There is some towns in california already doing this since the 90s.

      Maybe not exactly this way but they are treating their sewage for potable water

      • There are cities all along the mighty Mississippi who get the wastewater from cities upstream and turn it into potable water.

        As long as the coliform bacteria levels are beneath measurement, you're good to go.

        People sometimes forget how much chlorination has done to positively affect our longevity.

        • Exactly. My town pulls drinking water from a river, then sends the sewage out a mile downstream.
          The next town 10 miles to the south gets all of our sewage (somewhat treated), and does some treatment itself, then repeats the process.

          My guess is that the "closed loop" system from TFA is actually cleaner than what I'm drinking, simply because they know they are dealing with something completely polluted to begin with and have to win the public on it.

        • And to anyone who is all pissy about the chlorine taste of their tap water, follow these simple instructions:
          Obtain 2 Glass or stainess steel water pitcher. One with a Lid, and one without. (I use a glass pitcher and a gallon glass Jug in place of a pitcher with lid)
          Obtain 1 cheesecloth.
          Optional: obtain 1 Brita water filtration pitcher and filter.
          Sort your 2 pitchers into Pitcher A, the open top pitcher, and Pitcher B, the one with a lid.
          Fill Pitcher A from the tap, place the cheesecloth over the top
    • I think the worry with these systems is that as the economy gets worse there's a temptation to stop running them correctly to save money. In the1800s kids drank booze because it was a good way to get safe water...
      • by GNious (953874)

        I think the worry with these systems is that as the economy gets worse there's a temptation to stop running them correctly to save money. In the1800s kids drank booze because it was a good way to get safe water...

        Up until "recently" (think 1940-1950), beer was the best option for a safe supply of water, and most people would drink a few pints daily.
        Naturally, this was with a lot less alcohol than most beer today.

  • How is this new? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Saturday July 12, 2014 @01:47PM (#47438841) Homepage

    Since you need to treat sewage before putting it in the ground, and ground water before putting it in the water supply, what is new about connecting those two points? Do people think the sewage magically stops being sewage once it leaves the system?

    • by Irate Engineer (2814313) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @01:50PM (#47438859)

      Do people think the sewage magically stops being sewage once it leaves the system?

      Yes. Don't disturb the illusion!

      • This reminds me of Asimov's short story "Strikebreaker", where a person becomes untouchable by pressing the button for a remote-controlled waste treatment plant.

    • by itzly (3699663)
      If you connect those two points, you're leaving out the part where the ground water gets filtered by the soil.
    • by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

      Usually towns located at a river will pipe their (hopefully treated) sewage into that river.
      Towns downstream will often get at least part of their drinking water from groundwater taken near the river (the river guarantees a steady groundwater level), treat it again, then use it.

      This adds some cubics of soil as additional filter, but is basicly the same thing.

      Really, unless the town is lucky to get first access to some mountain's stream, the drinking water will always be at least part 'treated sewage'.

      • by gbjbaanb (229885)

        the mountain's stream is technically said sewage evaporated and rained on top of the mountain (or "sewage treated by nature"). Water molecules don't magic out of thin air.

        • by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

          I was assuming that we would at least stop at destilled water.
          Applying the "sewage' attribute to pure water molecules would be superstitio, unless you assumed the sewage was somehow radioactive.

          • Wildlife also pees and craps. Surface water is always 'contaminated'. UV helps sterilize it but the world is filthy.

          • by mpe (36238)
            Applying the "sewage' attribute to pure water molecules would be superstitio

            Or "homeopathy".

            unless you assumed the sewage was somehow radioactive.

            Unless it's been kept isolated for a few hundred years it probably will be slightly radioactive :)
            • Technically RO filtration would remove radioactive contamination from water. If you can filter sodium out, you can filter all the bigger atoms which can be radioactive in it.

    • In Tucson 10%ish of the drinking water comes from reclaimed water (aka filtered sewage). Makes sense in an area with not a lot of fresh water resources. Also in those areas you can have different kinds. You can purchase a non-potable (not for consumption) water source for irrigation. Again, reclaimed water, but it undergoes less filtering and thus is cheaper. Plenty of larger places get a hookup to keep their watering costs down.

      It is a very sensible way of doing things and you actually have more control of

  • Some bad news: unless you live in Bemidji MN (or one of the towns on the watershed divides of the Rockies or Appalachians), you are already drinking treated sewage.

    sPh

    • Nah, Where I live, the city's water is supplied entirely by a well field, (no running surface water) which is well above, and many miles from, the outlet for the cities waste treatment plant, so there is little chance of it being treated sewage.
  • by astro (20275) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @01:57PM (#47438893) Homepage

    If anything it's shocking the process isn't used more. I know in my hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska, reverse-osmosis waste water filtering was used at least as early as the 1980s, perhaps even the 70s. I'm trying to find a reference for proof, but haven't come up with one in a couple of minutes of Googling.

    The Wikipedia article on RO, by the way, is in pretty shabby shape if anyone gets a rise out of improving such things.

    • by rasmusbr (2186518)

      Singapore experimented with it in the 1970's, but the news is that it is now possible to do it at competitive price point. This means that cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles will not have to be abandoned when their natural water supplies run out.

      I imagine that if the technology can be miniaturized and made to work in lower than Earth gravity it could also be hugely important for human space flight and colonization of other bodies in the solar system.

      • There might be an RO system somewhere that uses gravity and an input reservoir at higher altitude than the output to supply some or all of the pressure; but I don't think that that is anything like the typical configuration. Cleaning up after a leak in zero gravity isn't going to be lots of fun; but everything else should work largely as planned.
  • by MAXOMENOS (9802) <maxomai.gmail@com> on Saturday July 12, 2014 @03:00PM (#47439193) Homepage

    A glass of the finished product, sampled at a downtown restaurant, tasted about average for West Texas.

    So the water tastes like shit. Good to know.

  • by Gibgezr (2025238) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @03:50PM (#47439385)

    My wife has multiple certifications in water and wastewater treatment, and she claims that it is only impractical from a P.R. standpoint; in most places, people would raise bloody hell if you told them that they were drinking water straight from the wastewater treatment facility, but it really is no different than drinking water from a municipal watershed. As she puts it, we are all drinking dinosaur pee anyway :)

  • I'm a WFTX resident (Score:5, Informative)

    by thehomeland-org (598119) <mjamesmoore4@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Saturday July 12, 2014 @03:53PM (#47439397) Homepage
    I'm a resident of WF (and had to dig up a years-old account to login although I do read frequently but never comment much, so apologies for the cheap-shot url username).. The new water is supposedly on, but I can't tell a difference.

    It's strange to me that there is all that much of a fuss with the locals, considering the fact that the process prior to this required treatment of said wastewater and greywater that was eventually let back out into the ordinary water table, became grimy with exposed air and otherwise ground contaminants, and was just filtered back to the city again through the lakes all over again anyway.

    When suggested that there was no telling how many people had drowned in the lakes, how many cars had been run off the road into them and rusted over and still leaking gasoline and oil, and not to mention how many dead animals and super-toxic algae were present in the lake in the first place that we were "drinking" before this new filtered idea came about, they tend to clam up (perhaps from being grossed out by my description).

    The city put out a lovely and sciencey YouTube video (which is now a year old), interviewing local chemists and otherwise credible local water experts who examined the setup and offered their input on it, here, for those interested in some of the more technical aspects. I've tried to link to it in most discussions I find online, but even still there are only 2790 views currently, out of a city of 100k+ pop, which is perhaps indicative of how terrible of a PR team our city does genuinely have. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MKrU1yi5Yc [youtube.com]

    Possibly the biggest local water controversy aside from the "poo-water" issue is how our city operates a water park, of all things. Supposedly it creates more profit that investment and is using outside, trucked-in water that is filtered and recirculated within its own closed system, but that doesn't stop torrents of naysayers leaping at every opportunity to inject it as shitstorm material, instantly derailing any city-admin discussion.
  • In most of the country, treated sewage is simply piped into the nearest creek/river/lake, and then at least some of it gets pulled in by the intake for the next municipality down the line... the only real interesting bit here is the fact that it's getting piped directly into the freshwater plant instead of floating downstream first.

  • If its purified to normal drinking water standards its fine.

  • by TeknoHog (164938) on Saturday July 12, 2014 @05:43PM (#47439947) Homepage Journal

    Whoever came up with this osmosis thing must have been...

    *puts on sunglasses*

    ...insane in the membrane.

  • Where you can drink the same water over and over again, like in a spaceship.

  • Lakes in the Dallas Fort Worth area have more trees growing in them than all the parks combined. Do like they do with White Rock or Bachman lakes.

  • Even though it's not a big deal or deserving of 'news' (as many others point out, it's very normal) it does sound bad, and I'm expecting lots of these, mostly from Republican Texans: Now I'm drinking piss and shit water, THANKS OBAMA!
  • by astar (203020) <max.stalnaker@gmail.com> on Sunday July 13, 2014 @10:17PM (#47446277) Homepage

    My state of Oregon is fully in drought. California is in extreme drought. Pretty much all the west has been in drought in a more general way for over a century.

    Now in California if you have 100 year water rights then you might own water you can sell privately. Since the public sources are no longer there for many uses then buying on the spot market might make sense. The spot hit $2200 acre foot recently. You can play with this and see that this might be 250 1000 gallon units untreated. So i guess this Texas town is maybe paying $200 for an acre foot and this treated. These numbers are pretty much just in my head approximations and you can recalculate as needed.

    California if this this goes on will be in a humanitarian crisis in 18 months. If so, you may be affected. You might want to support what this Texas city did after making the scat jokes. Or maybe shut down high water use export industries. When we ship a pound of beef out of country, how much water is effectively being shipped with it?

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