FORT WORTH, Texas — In parched West Texas, it’s often easier to drill for oil than to find new sources of water.
So after years of diminishing water supplies made even worse by the second-most severe drought in state history, some communities are resorting to a plan that might have seemed absurd a generation ago: turning sewage into drinking water.
Construction recently began on a $13 million water-reclamation plant believed to be the first of its kind in Texas. And officials have worked to dispel any fears that people will be drinking their neighbors’ urine, promising the system will yield clean, safe water. Some residents are prepared to put aside any squeamishness if it means having an abundant water supply.
“Any water is good water, as far as I’m concerned,” said Gary Fuqua, city manager in Big Spring, which will join the cities of Midland, Odessa and Stanton in using the water.
When the water finally reaches the tap, Fuqua said, its origin is “something I wouldn’t think about at all.”
Similar plants have been operating for years in Tucson, Ariz., parts of California and in other countries. Water experts predict other American cities will follow suit as they confront growing populations, drought and other issues.
“It’s happening all over the world,” said Wade Miller, executive director of the WateReuse Association based outside Washington. “In some places … resources are down to very low levels, and this is one of the few resources available.”
The Colorado River Municipal Water District in West Texas began considering a wastewater recycling plant back in 2000 and broke ground last month on the facility in Big Spring, about 100 miles southeast of Lubbock. When finished late next year, it should supply 2 million gallons of water a day.
The timing couldn’t be better. This year’s drought has made a bone-dry region even drier, causing crops to wither and animals and fish to die off by the thousands.
At least one of the three reservoirs in West Texas may dry up if the drought persists through next year, as climatologists have predicted could happen. That means the district’s water supply could be reduced from 65 million gallons a day to 45 million, said John Grant, the water district’s general manager.
“We have limited water supplies in Texas, and you have to turn to other sources of water,” Grant said.
The new system could actually improve the taste of the region’s water by removing the minerals and salt that give it a distinctive briny flavor, he added.
The idea to recycle sewage isn’t new. Fort Worth and other cities across the nation have long used treated wastewater to water grass and trees and irrigate crops. But the new treatment plant in West Texas will be the first in the state to provide drinking water.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been drinking recycled urine and sweat since 2009 — and consistently given the water good reviews.
For years, NASA had been working on equipment that would enable astronauts to recycle their wastewater for drinking, cooking and bathing. The system was launched to the space station in late 2008, and it took several months to conduct enough tests — in orbit and on the ground — to ensure the water was safe to consume.
Since the space shuttle fleet was retired last month, the space station’s recycling system is needed more than ever. Shuttles can’t deliver fresh water, and the agency says astronauts will need such recycling systems on future missions to an asteroid and Mars.
But some earth-bound people still need a little convincing.
“It just doesn’t sound very right, does it?” asked Liz Faught of Odessa. “I don’t want to drink it.”
Still, she had confidence that any public health concerns would be addressed long before the water arrives in the cities.
“I feel they would not do this and it be an unsafe practice,” she said.
The slightest suggestion of urine in drinking water can make people uneasy.
In June, officials in Portland, Ore., sent 8 million gallons of treated drinking water down the drain after a man was caught on a security camera urinating into a reservoir. City leaders said they didn’t want to distribute water laced, however infinitesimally, with urine.
The wastewater recycling process is long and complex. The first steps remove salt and impurities such as viruses and even traces of medicine. Then the wastewater is channeled into a lake or reservoir, where it’s blended with fresh water and eventually gets pumped into a water-treatment facility. There, it undergoes several more rounds of cleaning, disinfection and testing before finally reaching home faucets.
When the project was presented several years ago, there were no major protests during public hearings, Grant said. Most people don’t mind the idea once they understand that the treated water is safe to drink, he said.
“Folks out here have accepted it because they understand what the value of water is,” Grant said.
In California, the West Basin Municipal Water District in southwest Los Angeles County started treating wastewater in the 1990s because it had been importing 80 percent of its water. Using recycled water has not only cut down on importing costs but also helped the environment by eliminating the need to dump sewage in the ocean, officials said.
In Orange County, Calif., a similar project started several years ago now provides 70 million gallons a day, water that is considered nearly as pure as distilled, Miller said.
San Diego is also studying the idea.