Water reuse isn't widely practiced in Oklahoma, but more cities, businesses and farmers are finding ways to utilize the concept as the resource becomes scarcer and more expensive.
Reuse water starts its journey every time a toilet is flushed, a load of laundry is done or some dishes are washed. It eventually makes its way to a wastewater treatment plant, where it's cleaned and disinfected according to state regulations.
From there, most of it returns to a water source — typically a river or creek — where nature further purifies the water.
But in some Oklahoma cities, officials are finding ways to use that water to save money and conserve what is considered by many to be the world's most precious natural resource.
In Oklahoma City, reuse has been ongoing since the mid-1990s. Today, three of the city's wastewater treatment plants pump water to privately held companies.
Reuse water, at least today, isn't meant for drinking. It's also cheaper to treat but can be sold for the same price as regular water in certain instances.
Bret Weingart, assistant director of the city's Utilities Department, said Gaillardia Country Club was the first private company to utilize the reuse concept along with Oklahoma City. He said the golf course began using the treated water in 1996.
“The ponds in the golf course ... that is the water we're selling them,” Weingart said. “That way we're not using potable water to water the golf course.”
Since 2000, Oklahoma City has been pumping reuse water to a power plant near Luther and another one in Newcastle to help cool turbines used to generate power.
City officials say they send between 5 and 6 million gallons of treated wastewater to the plant near Luther every day. The plant in Newcastle typically gets 2.5 million gallons a day, while the golf course can use between 500,000 and 750,000 per day, depending on demand.
“Because the reuse water we're using is for irrigation and the cooling of turbines at these power plants, the water we use for drinking is less in demand,” Weingart said.
Norman's Utilities Director Ken Komiske said his city is sending reuse water to a golf course on the University of Oklahoma campus and using it in other treatment processes to avoid using drinking water.
“OU pays for the electricity and the pumping costs ... basically the operations costs,” Komiske said. “We don't really make a whole lot or lose anything.”
And like Weingart, Komiske says that saving money isn't necessarily the biggest reason for taking part in reuse efforts. Norman often has to purchase water from Oklahoma City to meet peak demand days — a habit that can become costly during an especially hot and dry summer.
“Why do you need potable water to water grass?” Komiske asked. “Wastewater is a product. It's treated, it's relatively clean and to make potable water is expensive.”
In Guymon, water reuse has been ongoing since 1985, according to Wastewater Supervisor Bradley Cawlfield.
The Panhandle region is the state's largest water consumer and Texas County, where Guymon is located, is the county with the highest consumption level in Oklahoma. The area also receives little rainfall and surface water is virtually unheard of as a source, at least in the past several decades.
Cawlfield said the city reuses wastewater by pumping it onto crops such as alfalfa and wheat.
“We get all our water from the ground, so it's very important for us as conservation,” he said. “And it does just fine to sprinkle it on the crops.”
Like the arrangements in Oklahoma City and Norman, the water reuse happening in Guymon involves partnerships.
“We have about 1,400 acres that we could water using it,” Cawlfield said. “About 500 or so of those are owned by the city. The rest are owned by regular farmers.”
Reuse in the future
In the future, reuse will likely become a more popular, and often necessary, way to meet drinking water and irrigation demands — the two biggest in the state.
With this in mind, Komiske said he's part of a committee formed to regulate water reuse in Oklahoma. He's been working with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and others to put rules in place to streamline the process for those entities interested in reusing wastewater.
“There are no rules to allow it,” Komiske said. “If you want to reuse water in Oklahoma, they look at it on a case-by-case basis, so we're starting from scratch every time. We think if it's regulated and people know what they have to do, more people will explore reuse.”
Like most involved with reuse, Weingart said Oklahoma City is looking at ways to expand its program.
“When you compare our reuse program to others in this area, we have a fairly large program and it's the product of forward-thinking city leaders,” he said. “And there's potential for more users. We'd love to do more of it ... we're just waiting for the right opportunity.”
In Guymon, it goes without saying that reuse — or any practice that stretches the region's scarcest and most important resource — will continue to be looked at.
“It's important for us,” Cawlfield said. “Like I said, every bit of water we get is pumped out of the ground.”