Desperate Measures to Keep Water Flowing May 27 2014
It's hard to image a city of 105,000 running out of water, but that's the reality in Wichita Falls, Texas. A crippling four-year drought has taken this community to a place they've never been before.
"It's been awful here. We're entering our worst drought on record," said Russell Schreiber, the city's public works director, and the force behind one of the most controversial plans in Texas: The use of treated wastewater for public consumption. It's a bold move — and a tough sell.
Tim McMillin, a radio host and father in Wichita Falls, is one of the many residents who doesn't like the idea of drinking treated wastewater.
"Just the concept of drinking the water that yesterday you sent along its merry way ... I don't think anybody wants that.
McMillin worries about his kids' safety when this new plan is instituted. "I have no way to test it myself," he said.
He won't have to just yet. The Texas Water Commission is reviewing more than 8,000 pages of data to ensure Wichita Falls' new state-of-the-art treatment facility is working.
It's capable of treating 5 million gallons of water a day, and has the full support of Mayor Glenn Barham.
"That water will be safe," Barham said. "I'll be the first to take a drink when they turn it on."
Here's how it works. Four stages of high-tech filters remove all solid material from the water. The final stage is a process called reverse osmosis, which strips nearly everything out of the water but the basic hydrogen and oxygen molecules.
Treated water alone can't save this community. This is the driest three-year period in recorded history. It started with a brutal summer heat wave in 2011, when Wichita Falls endured more than 100 days of temperatures above 100 degrees and saw a mere 13 inches of rain.
Drought restrictions are in place, prohibiting all outdoor water usage. City officials will begin issuing fines up to $2,000 for people who turn on the hose, wash their cars or fill their pools.
Redefined Through Adversity
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, there are now 12 water districts in the state of Texas with only 45 days of water remaining. Faced with the threat of running dry, Wichita Falls responded in Texas-sized fashion. City water usage is down more than 45 percent, saving enough water to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools each day.
Teressa Rose is a wife, mother of two and a determined engineer. She and her husband have installed rain barrels around their home to collect water for their trees. She's also using biodegradable paper plates at dinner and taking advantage of a citywide composting plan.
"Water is now just as valuable to us as oil or gold," said Rose. "It's that important."
Her efforts have resulted in a 75 percent reduction in water usage around the house.
Public drought awareness is at an all-time high. KFDX-TV news reporter David Gonzales says it's all people talk and pray about.
"A local non-denominational group meets in the dry lake bed to pray for rain," he said.
One local radio station is using the airwaves to raise awareness. Host Keith Vaughn plays a rain-related classic rock song every hour during his show on 104.7 The Bear.
"It can be anything with rain or water in the lyrics," he said.
He checks a master list of tracks just above his microphone as "When Will It Rain?" by Jackyl plays for his listeners.
Vaughn is also cutting back on his water usage. "Sometimes I'll accidentally leave the tap on while I'm brushing my teeth and say, 'Hey, wait a second, I can't do that.'"