Best Bets for Texas Water

Water reuse

Traditionally, after a community uses water it is treated to reduce levels of harmful pollutants and then it is released into downstream rivers or other water bodies. One way to increase a community’s water supply is to reuse this wastewater. This is also known as water recycling.

Terms to know
01
Wastewater

Water that has been used by humans. “Graywater” is wastewater that does not include toilet waste; “blackwater” refers to wastewater that includes toilet water.

02
Return flows

Wastewater that is treated and then released into a downstream river.
Because of how much water has been diverted and pumped for human use across the state, many Texas rivers now depend on this wastewater to maintain flow, especially during droughts. Conditions vary from one river to another and in a few places, such as the Trinity River below Dallas, wastewater discharges (arising in part from imported surfaced water) are large enough to have an artificially high amount of water flowing in the river during times of drought.

03
Potable reuse

Wastewater is treated to drinking water standards and then reused in a potable (drinkable) water system.

04
Nonpotable reuse

Wastewater is treated, though not to drinking water standards, and is used for non-drinking water purposes (such as landscape irrigation and flushing toilets).

05
Indirect reuse

Wastewater is treated, discharged into an aquifer or surface water reservoir and then captured and used again. Some communities have constructed wetlands to hold and naturally filter wastewater as part of the reuse process.

06
Direct reuse

Wastewater is treated and then reused directly without first being discharged into a body of water.

Indirect and direct reuse can both include either potable or nonpotable reuse, depending on the purpose of the water reuse project. Indirect and direct reuse require different permitting processes.

Reuse is increasingly common in Texas. Wholesale water suppliers in North Texas cities like Fort Worth, Plano and Frisco all use indirect potable reuse. Big Spring is credited as having the first direct potable reuse project in the country, and Wichita Falls used direct potable reuse as an emergency measure during the severe 2011 drought. Although most direct reuse projects focus on nonpotable reuse, potable reuse is becoming more common.

While this guide discusses centralized wastewater reuse – basically, reuse done on a large, city-level scale – it is worth noting that reuse can also be decentralized. Decentralized reuse can be found in suburbs or townships, neighborhoods or other small communities, and even “on-site” on a single property.

Reuse and conservation: What's the difference?

Although reuse is included in Texas’ legal definition of water conservation – a decision that was strongly contested – water reuse is not the same as traditional water conservation. Unlike traditional water conservation, reuse does not reduce how much water a community uses; the community is still consuming the same total amount of water.

Reuse and water conservation can (and should) be used together, but reuse is still a way to make more water available for use, not a substitute for strong water conservation programs that reduce usage.

Water reuse report card
Environment
Relative to other strategies, this is as good as it gets – however, even a good strategy can be done poorly if it is not carefully implemented.

As long as enough water is returned to rivers for fish and wildlife, reuse is a promising way to avoid more destructive projects.

True costs
This strategy is promising on some fronts, but there are some real concerns.

Reuse is less expensive and less ecologically damaging than most other water supply projects. Centralized reuse systems in particular can be less expensive, but these costs are often subsidized.

Long-term viability
Relative to other strategies, this is as good as it gets – however, even a good strategy can be done poorly if it is not carefully implemented.

Reuse is a reliable long-term strategy. Whether it is the best choice for water supply in a given case requires a careful evaluation of reuse vs. other alternatives, to make sure there is enough water flowing downstream to sustain rivers, bays and wildlife.

Water reuse grade breakdown
Environmental impacts
Positive
  • When done responsibly and with due consideration of the water flows needed downstream, water reuse can be a reliable water supply source that helps communities avoid more expensive and environmentally-damaging water supply options.
Negative
  • If too much water is reused consumptively (such as for watering lawns), return flows will be lessened. Some rivers may run dry, threatening the health of the river and wildlife, including the health of coastal bays.
We knew we had to do something. Water resources are hard to bring online, whether it be groundwater or new surface water. And when you've got a resource at a wastewater plant that you can readily bring online, that was something that we wanted to look at.
True costs

1 There are various infrastructure (treatment, piping) costs for reuse. Studies have shown, however, that reuse is often less expensive, and less environmentally-damaging, than developing an entirely new water supply and/or moving water from a long distance.

2 Reuse water may often be provided at subsidized rates to encourage users to participate. As a result, reuse projects may not fully pay their way, at least until there is broader acceptance of the practice.

3 If return flows provide a substantial part of a specific river’s flows during dry periods, then reusing too much of that water can harm the river’s health, as well as its related recreational, tourism and fishing economies, and any affected bay system. Careful judgement is needed to determine which does more damage – reusing return flows or developing a new source of water.

Long-term viability

1 Because it allows communities to recapture water locally instead of depending on water from other new sources, reuse can be a sustainable and cost-effective long-term strategy.

2 As with any water supply project, for water reuse to be truly viable in the long term, a community must consider the river (and any bay) downstream and make sure to release enough return flows to maintain its health.

  • The City of Houston recently set an example of how to strike this balance. The City sought indirect reuse authorization and agreed, in response to requests from our Texas Living Waters team and others, to release 50 percent of its treated wastewater downstream. This helps ensure a minimum amount of drought-reliable fresh water will flow into Galveston Bay, where it is needed to support healthy fish nurseries and wildlife habitat.

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