- Associated Press - Sunday, August 14, 2011

FORT WORTH, Texas — In parched West Texas, it’s often easier to drill for oil than to find new sources of water.

So after years of diminishing water supplies made even worse by the second-most severe drought in state history, some communities are resorting to a plan that might have seemed absurd a generation ago: turning sewage into drinking water.

Construction has begun on a $13 million water-reclamation plant thought to be the first in Texas. Officials have worked to dispel any fears that people will be drinking their neighbors’ urine, promising the system will yield clean, safe water. Some residents are prepared to put aside any squeamishness if it means having an abundant water supply.

“Any water is good water, as far as I’m concerned,” said Gary Fuqua, city manager in Big Spring, which will join the cities of Midland, Odessa and Stanton in using the water.

When the water reaches the tap, he said, its origin is “something I wouldn’t think about at all.”

Similar plants have been operating for years in Tucson, Ariz., in parts of California and in other countries. Water authorities predict other American cities will follow suit as they confront growing populations, drought and other issues.

“It’s happening all over the world,” said Wade Miller, executive director of the WateReuse Association based outside Washington. “In some places … resources are down to very low levels, and this is one of the few resources available.”

The Colorado River Municipal Water District in West Texas began considering a wastewater recycling plant back in 2000 and broke ground last month on the facility in Big Spring, about 100 miles southeast of Lubbock. When finished late next year, it should supply 2 million gallons of water a day.

The timing couldn’t be better. This year’s drought has made a bone-dry region even drier, causing crops to wither and animals and fish to die off by the thousands.

At least one of the three reservoirs in West Texas may dry up if the drought persists through next year, as climatologists have predicted could happen. That means the district’s water supply could be reduced from 65 million gallons a day to 45 million, said John Grant, the water district’s general manager.

“We have limited water supplies in Texas, and you have to turn to other sources of water,” he said.

The system could even improve the taste of the region’s water by removing the minerals and salt that give it a distinctive briny flavor, he added.

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.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been drinking recycled urine and sweat since 2009 - and consistently given the water good reviews.

For years, NASA had been working on equipment that would enable astronauts to recycle their wastewater for drinking, cooking and bathing. The system was launched to the space station in late 2008, and it took several months to conduct enough tests - in orbit and on the ground - to ensure the water was safe to consume.