As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Tapping Toilets.

May 6, 2014

As part of it’s coverage of the US Global Change report, CBS used this example of water scarcity.

The Story: More communities, like Wichita Falls, Texas, forced to use water “toilet to tap”. NPR via

Mayor Glenn Barham says three years of extreme drought have changed life for 104,000 people living in Wichita Falls, which is about 115 miles northwest of Fort Worth. “(There’s) no outside irrigation whatsoever with potable water. Car washes are closed one day a week.  If you drain your pool to do maintenance you aren’t allowed to fill it,” he explained. The mayor says citizens are pitching in and have cut their city’s water use by more than one-third.  Still, water supplies are still expected to run out in two years, which is why the city has built a 13-mile pipeline that connects its wastewater plant to the plant where water is purified for drinking. That’s right: What residents flush down the toilet will be part of what’s cleaned up and sent back to them through the tap. “It’s gross” “I think it’s gross,” said Marissa Oliveras as she ordered a glass of tap water with her sandwich at Gidget’s Sandwich Shack in downtown Wichita Falls. “I mean it’s recycled wastewater we could be drinking,” she said.  She plans to switch to bottled water. Kira Smith saves money ordering tap water at the restaurant now, but says she’ll pay $1.89 for a bottle of water when the recycled wastewater begins to flow. “It definitely grosses me out,” Smith said.  “I’m sure that they would clean it and filter it up to standards.  But it’s a mindset kind of thing. You know what I’m talking about?”

Barham says the city has undertaken a massive education campaign to reassure residents that the water will be clean and safe to drink, and to explain the science behind the treatment process. (note: I wonder if they explain the science behind the drought process?-Peter) Water experts know it as “direct potable reuse,” something that’s been tried on a much smaller scale in Big Spring, Texas. But some people unceremoniously call it “toilet to tap,” a moniker that Utilities Operations Manager Daniel Nix says isn’t really accurate. “The vast majority of water that enters a wastewater plant did not come from a toilet. It comes from sinks, and bathtubs and washing machines and dishwashers,” he said. Nix said less than 20 percent of wastewater comes from toilets.


 A third successive year of California’s worst drought in a century has the Golden State’s reservoirs at record lows.Agriculture has been affected, hitting the local economy, while some small communities risk running out of water.

But business is booming in California’s Orange County Water District (OCWD), through a pioneering wastewater treatment facility that recycles used water — or sewage — and returns it to the drinking supply. The plant is expanding production from 70 to 100 million gallons per day, enough for 850,000 people, around one-third of the county population. As the OWCD output is mixed with the main groundwater supply it reaches over 70% of residents.

The facility is among the oldest and largest of its type in the world, and could represent a model solution for a global problem. The U.N. warns that half the world population will face water scarcity by 2030, accelerated by climate change and population growth. Shortages on such a scale would threaten food production, as well as a health crisis through increased exposure to unsanitary water, which already kills millions each year through waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhea.

But the introduction of reuse systems has been difficult, with a high degree of public skepticism. Orange County began recycling water for non-potable use in the 1970s, but only began contributing to the drinking supply in 2008, combined with a comprehensive PR and education campaign to allay public fears.


19 Responses to “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Tapping Toilets.”

  1. They should switch to composting toilets. And no fracking.

    All water has been consumed and peed uncountable times over. How do people not know this?

  2. Peter… we talked about this very thing after the movie a few weeks ago. This is the real deal and will not get better anytime soon. Water in the Southwest is becoming oxymoronic.

  3. […] As part of it's coverage of the US Global Change report, CBS used this example of water scarcity. The Story: More communities, like Wichita Falls, Texas, forced to use water "toilet to tap". NPR vi…  […]

  4. andrewfez Says:

    They should switch to Earthship design water conservation: All rainwater is collected, stored and processed for sinks and showers. Once through those items and down their drains, the water is filtered via going through a medium of dirt and plant roots in the solarium, then recollected. The recollected water then is used to flush the toilets….

    You can grow food with your sink water so some farmer doesn’t have to use so much of it.

  5. Taylor Fleet Says:

    Precisely, as neilblanchard says: all water has been peed and pooped countless times. The toilet-to-tap technology is simply drawing a straighter line between two points, one that would otherwise have a river between them.

    Those two illustrations–the photo of the man drinking the murky water and the schematic of someone drinking from a toilet–are ambiguous at best, irresponsible at worst. I didn’t see them in the link to the original article. Are they meant to be emblematic of what countless people think toilet-to-tap means, so we can roll our eyes at their ignorance? Or that Climate Crocks thinks the idea is icky?

    • greenman3610 Says:

      the point is that a lot of people think it is “icky”, rightly or wrongly – and that in the pre-climate change era, it was not as necessary to make the direct toilet to tap connection. One more reason to wake up.

  6. dumboldguy Says:

    It’s amazing how much people are unaware of “the way it really is” in the world. People have been dumping their sewage (treated or untreated) into waterways for centuries here in the U.S. and all over the world, and folks downstream have been cleaning it up as best they can and using it over and over.

    Here in northern VA, the stream after which two Civil War Battles were named (1st. and 2nd. Bull Run to the Union, 1st. and 2nd. Manassas to the Rebels) used to be lined with alternating small sewage and water treatment plants. In the summer when water flow was low, almost all the volume was treated sewage by the time it got to the Occoquan Reservoir, then the source of much of Northern VA’s drinking water, and most of the small plants didn’t do a very good job. In the environmentally conscious ’70’s (and after newspaper articles like “How many times has your glass of drinking water been flushed down someone else’s toilet?”, a state of the art sewage plant was built that collected all the sewage from all the small plants and dumped it into Bull Run just above the reservoir. VERY expensive, and caused them to separate water and sewer charges on our utility bills, but we had clean water. When the advanced plant opened, the TV news had many clips of politicians scooping and drinking water from the outflow, all the while smiling and smacking their lips.

    Update: My area used to be supplied water from municipal wells—very “hard” but clean. An IBM plant polluted some of them with trichlorethylene, so we were switched to surface water. As the DC Metro area grows rapidly, more and more water is being taken from the Potomac River, which flows down from WV and is increasingly polluted with mine drainage, chicken and pig POOP, fertilizer runoff, and hormones and antibiotics that come out of the pigs and chickens in “gross” ways.

    “Gross” and “Yuck factor”? Grow up, people—this is the price we pay for living in the “modern” world.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the hormones and antibiotics.  The concentration of hormones in rivers is already high enough to affect the sexual characteristics of fish.  Unless the water is filtered and/or oxidized heavily enough to destroy them, this is going to start coming back to humans (particularly infants and children).

      On the plus side, if the filtering/oxidation is done, those chemicals are eliminated rather than just passed to nature to deal with.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Yep, they have been catching male smallmouth bass in the Potomac River here that also have well-developed female reproductive organs. They speculate that the hormones put into the animal feed in WV may be the cause. They are also finding detectable amounts of hormones from human birth control pills in the water that apparently come through upstream sewage treatment plants unchanged, and have speculated that is not going to be good for developing humans.

        Since the hormones from the animal feed are getting into the water by way of runoff from untreated manure from many sources, many of which are non-point, they are hard to treat there. They ARE using more carbon bed filtration and ozonation/oxidation water treatment with some success.

        We are putting so many different chemicals in the water (albeit in minuscule amounts) that we will be lucky if some unforeseen synergy doesn’t get us.

  7. dumboldguy Says:

    It is simply not true to say “ALL water has been consumed and peed UNCOUUNTABLE times over” (and food is what gets pooped, not water). In places that have had the foresight to establish reservoirs at the headwaters of rivers and keep their watersheds in a natural state, the water is used for the first and only time when it comes out of the tap. Northern NJ and New York City are two places where this is true. After use, the sewage is treated and pretty much flows directly to the ocean without reuse. It then evaporates and enters the water cycle, and returns as rain to the reservoirs. The water in the reservoirs in the Catskills is far cleaner BEFORE treatment than what comes out of the tap in many areas of the country.

    The illustrations are “ambiguous at best, irresponsible at worst”? Picky-picky, aren’t we? Lighten up and enjoy Peter’s “inventiveness” as he seeks to make a rather “dry” (but really wet) topic more interesting.

    I myself would like to know where the man and toilet illustration came from, because it does NOT look like the man is “drinking water from the toilet”. The hose extends through the water in the trap and into the void in the outlet pipe beyond the water. If anything, it looks like he is “huffing” sewer gas with that apparatus. A strange way to get high?

    • Taylor Fleet Says:

      Not picky at all. The images are embedded with the quote. That implies they were part of the original article. They weren’t.

      But more importantly, they work to undermine the argument being made (one I agree with, by the way): that toilet-to-tap, despite it seeming “icky” and in especially in light of current and forecasted water shortages, is really a very rational way to use water. It’s not like drinking a cloudy glass of feces; it’s not equivalent to plunging a straw in a toilet and sucking. So I don’t understand why those images were chosen to illustrate the article.

      Poop is mostly water, by they way.

      And yes, water comes crystal clear from the Catskills, but it should be obvious its not manufactured there. By “pooped and peed uncountable times,” I mean to say every molecule of water we consume has been somewhere else and depending on where you get your water from, and given the age of the earth, it’s not inconceivable to assume it’s traveled the length of an alimentary canal or two.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “Not picky at all”, you say? Peter has spoken on his motives and I’ve said my piece. You’re still arguing a minor point for no apparent good reason.

        “Poop is mostly water, by the way” is true enough but the water lost from the body leaves mainly via urine (~50%), followed by breathing, then perspiration, and lastly in the feces.

        “And yes, water comes crystal clear from the Catskills, but it should be obvious its not manufactured there”? Sorry, but for our purposes, it IS “manufactured” there, in that rainfall fills the reservoirs we draw from.

        As for “By ‘pooped and peed uncountable times,’ I mean to say every molecule of water we consume has been somewhere else and depending on where you get your water from, and given the age of the earth, it’s not inconceivable to assume it’s traveled the length of an alimentary canal or two”.

        A bit of hyperbole there. A quick look at Wiki yields—-“Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and 98.8% of that water is in ice and groundwater. Less than 0.3% of all freshwater is in rivers, lakes, and the atmosphere, and an even smaller amount of the Earth’s freshwater (0.003%) is contained within biological bodies and manufactured products.” Considering that man has not been on the earth for long, what a small portion of the earth’s “biological bodies” man and animals represent, and the preceding math, it really IS quite an overreach to say what you did, even if you meant to include animals other than man as “poopers and pee-ers”.

  8. jimbills Says:

    This is NOT just a climate change issue. This is much more highly correlated with agricultural use and population growth. Climate change is definitely a stress factor, and industry usage adds to the problem, but it’s really a matter of us using the water too quickly for the reservoirs to adequately replenish.

    “it takes about 1,300 gallons of water to produce the average hamburger”

    On water reclamation, we’re going to have to get used to it. Climate change isn’t going away, we’re making no moves to re-think our agricultural production (besides GMOs, which are really just about bringing higher profit margins to fewer and fewer companies), population isn’t declining, and we still have fricking lawns (instead of xeroscaping) as a norm in this country. Something has got to give, so ‘toilet water’ is coming to a town near you (unless you live in the NE and NW).

    Is water recycling a bad thing?

    One can buy as much bottled water from Nestle that they want. They’ll still have to shower in it, do their dishes with it, and wash their clothes with it.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        IMO? Bottled water is a very bad thing. It’s basically a scam and another triumph of marketing over common sense and science. An immense waste of resources of all kinds.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “This is NOT just a climate change issue. This is much more highly correlated with agricultural use and population growth…’s really a matter of us using the water too quickly for the reservoirs to adequately replenish”.

      Yep. I can remember reading quite a bit about “water problems” back in the 70’s before climate change became a front burner issue. It was widely known and accepted that most of the country west of the Mississippi was on an unsustainable path water-wise, and that in addition to the reservoirs (as on the Colorado), that the excessive pumping of groundwater was depleting the aquifers. As there is now, there was also much concern over the water problems of the folks in the third world. Too many people usjng water in wasteful and unsustainable ways, and moving to places like Phoenix and southern CA.

      • jimbills Says:

        The first to go is likely to be Las Vegas. Lake Mead is dropping to its lowest levels, and unfortunately for Las Vegas, Mead provides 90% of their water and about 16% of their electricity (Hoover Dam).

        Everyone mentions the drought as the cause, and definitely that is a large factor, but this is a problem that has been building for years, and it’s really the massive population growth in Las Vegas plus agricultural usage in California that is the main cause. Las Vegas has implemented really great efficiency measures, but these have been completely overwhelmed by growth:

        “The city has made major improvements in water efficiency, using about 40 percent less water per person over the past 25 years or so. The problem is the city’s population has tripled over that same time, and total water usage is up (though down from its peak about a decade ago—an improvement due at least partially to the economic downturn).”

        That’s the problem we face on the local, national, and global scales – growth overwhelms any and all technological improvements and efficiency measures. It’s Jevon’s Paradox in action.

        Lake Mead has a feeder lake that doesn’t get a lot of attention called Lake Powell. Here’s a recent news story from there:

  9. dumboldguy Says:

    OK, folks—-get ready. The diagram Peter showed of the man with a hose in his mouth was obviously NOT someone drinking water from the toilet but someone breathing the air on the other side of the water in the trap.

    It was making me crazy, so I searched a bit and found out that it’s a WATER SNORKLE, a patented device that is supposed to be used in case of fire in a hotel or high rise. You can breathe the air in the toilet drain and vent pipes through it, and avoid being asphyxiated by smoke until rescuers reach you.

    I am not making this up—-check out the “Toilets of the World” site, which is run by the “toilet guru”. Check out the “historical toilets” section—Leon Trotsky’s is especially appealing.

  10. […] 2014/05/06: PSinclair: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Tapping Toilets. […]

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