Direct Potable Reuse in Brownwood, Texas

by Gary Gold
November 5, 2014

Small oil boomtowns in Texas rarely make national news, let alone international headlines. Brownwood has an opportunity to become an exception. The city could become one of the first in the United States (along with Wichita Falls) to implement direct potable water reuse. Informally referred to as “toilet to tap”, direct potable reuse is a system where wastewater is treated to drinking water standards and sent directly through the drinking water system. Despite the “yuck” factor of the general public regarding reuse water, this system can provide drinking water that is just as safe to consume as traditional potable water. Direct potable reuse offers a sustainable water-supply option that is gaining popularity and could potentially quench the thirst of our growing population in Texas.

It’s no secret that Texas is strained for water resources. With populations skyrocketing at unprecedented rates, and water supplies strained by the effects of an ongoing drought, there is a need for innovative solutions to meet our water demand. Many municipalities are looking toward groundwater for the solution. But how long will those supplies last? Excessive pumping has already severely threatened groundwater supplies in many areas and with drought, their future is uncertain. A more sustainable solution to our increasingly thirsty population in Texas is to recycle our current supply using new technology that makes it possible to treat wastewater back to drinking water quality.

Historically, Texans have not been afraid to choose the road less traveled and have done so in the realm of direct potable reuse. We therefore understand that doing so is not without significant challenges, as is the case with direct potable reuse. In September 2012, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) committed a $12 million loan to the city of Brownwood to finance, among other projects, a direct potable reuse facility. However, the project is on hold due to water quality concerns. Though the city received a loan extension at a recent TWDB meeting, Brownwood officials are looking into other water supply options and may drop the direct potable use idea. Despite initial setbacks, Brownwood is on the doorstep of success and should revamp its efforts.

Another drought-stricken Texas city paved the way for Brownwood to become the next innovator in water treatment. This past summer, a direct potable reuse project in Wichita Falls went online and now provides 5 million gallons of water daily for the city. Approximately 1/3 of the daily water demand in Wichita Falls is provided by treating effluent waste! The success of the Wichita Falls reuse system is an inspiration that should jolt Brownwood officials to have another try at this sustainable water-supply option.

Becoming one of the first in the United States to rely on direct potable reuse would put the little known city of Brownwood on the map. More important, however, is the precedent it would set for the state. Texas needs innovative solutions to our water-supply challenges. Relying on our diminishing surface water supplies and depleting our groundwater aquifers may work for now, and possibly for the next couple of decades. But what happens after that? How can we meet the demand of our increasingly thirsty (and growing) population in fifty years? What Texas needs is sustainable water-supply solutions. Direct potable reuse has the potential to provide just that.

Gary Gold is a graduate student in Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.