Waste not: Worsening water shortages could lead to use of effluent

Imagine if the water you drink today is the same water that you flushed down the toilet yesterday. If drought conditions and low Rio Grande water levels persist, that could at least be a consideration for the future of the Rio GrandeValley and perhaps the entire state.

Treated wastewater, called effluent, already is used in South Texas to irrigate local golf courses and some farms. It isn’t fed into our drinking water supply.

At least, not yet.

But as drought conditions persist and sources of drinking water are overwhelmed, areas like the Valley increasingly will have to look for new ways to provide potable water to meet the needs of our steadily growing residential and business populations.

Texas already allows the recycling of effluent water into municipal water supplies, and some cities such as Wichita Falls and Big Spring, in West Texas, already do so. The Colorado Water Conservation Board already has given preliminary approval to recycling wastewater throughout that state.

News and research reports indicate that the lack of regulatory approval could be the primary reason more cities and states don’t use effluent to better meet their water needs.

The idea actually isn’t so icky. Valley utility officials have told us that because the federal Environmental Protection Agency requires wastewater discharges to be filtered and treated to prevent anything that could harm wildlife or pollute the water, discharges from municipal water systems generally are cleaner than the water that originally was taken in. It’s certainly believable; because most of the Valley’s potable water is taken from the Rio Grande and we’re at the terminal point of the river, the water we receive includes municipal, industrial and agricultural discharges from El Paso, Laredo and all other points along the river, in addition to natural rainfall runoff and animal waste.

Certainly, the Valley has other options before routing wastewater into our tap water. Despite the region’s rapidly growing population and industrial and business sectors, agriculture still uses three-fourths of all the water used in the region. Using more effluent water for crop irrigation would maximize its use and leave more available for homes. In addition, some local municipalities are revisiting the extraction of groundwater. Water pumps that continue to stand in some Valley cities, which have long stood as mere remnants of days gone by, could be brought back into use. Also, desalination of coastal waters continues to increase.

Recycling treated water, however, likely is a more efficient, and therefore more cost-effective, option, and could be less harmful to the environment than the salty discharge that desalination plants return to Valley waterways and estuaries.

One thing is certain, however, in the absence of sudden climate change that blesses the Valley — and all areas that feed water into the Rio Grande — with more consistent rainfall, officials, and residents, need to be increasingly willing to consider other possible sources of water that we simply can’t live without.