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.
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.
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.
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.