With every flush of a toilet, residents in parts of parched West Texas are adding to their drinking water supply.
A $13 million reclamation plant in Big Spring began Monday blending sewage that's treated to drinking-water standards with treated water from lakes, Colorado River Municipal Water District general manager John Grant said.
"It's safe," Grant said. "If something goes wrong the plant shuts down before (the sewage) gets into the system."
Water from the project adds 2 million gallons daily -- no small drop in the bucket in a 500,000-customer district whose daily demand at this time of year is about 40 million gallons daily and can climb as high as 80 million gallons during hot summer months. The district services the cities of Midland, Odessa, Big Spring, Snyder and Stanton.
Believed to be the first of its kind in Texas, the plant started a testing phase about two weeks ago. The district treats water from three lakes, one of which is effectively dry as a result of ongoing drought, and from groundwater wells several counties southwest of Big Spring also contribute.
"You live in West Texas and you can't depend on one source of supply," Grant said. "You've got to have multiple sources."
But recent drought didn't prompt the plant's arrival. Grant said the district began looking at building it early last decade, and construction, ironically, began in 2011, the state's driest year on record.
Investigators with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will do inspections periodically, spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said Monday. During the first year of operations, chemical analyses will be done quarterly on the treated water to ensure it meets federal and state standards. Also, the district is required to submit monthly reports that include testing results for disinfectant and microbial levels as well as the presence of lead, copper and arsenic, she said.
The first quarter's chemical analysis showed the reused water met all federal and state standards, Morrow said.
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. And astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been drinking recycled urine and sweat since 2009 -- and consistently given the water good reviews.
But West Texas' is the first in the state to provide drinking water. Similar treatment 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.
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.
Before the plant, the sewage water went into a creek and eventually ended up in the Colorado River and the area reservoirs, which the district uses. The wastewater from Big Spring now goes directly to the new plant, which saves water lost to evaporation during its way downstream.