How the residents of El Paso, Texas agreed to start treating and drinking their own sewage

Water-starved El Paso takes to extreme water conservation.
The arid city of El Paso, Texas is moving to a closed-loop water supply, meaning residents drink their own waste after it is treated and purified. (Pixabay)
Listen7:30

For most of us living in Canada, having access to fresh water is simply a matter of turning on the tap, and pouring a glass or filling the bath. But what if, one day, you turn on that tap and nothing comes out?

That was the circumstance facing the city of El Paso, which sits just on the Texas side of the US/Mexico border, on the parched edge of the Rio Grande, which is in near-constant drought condition. To say water is a scarce commodity would be an understatement. It's drier than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1989, Ed Archuleta became the CEO and president of El Paso Water Utilities. He was hired to do something about the decreasing water supply. So the engineer convinced the city to adopt a radical idea: planning fifty years into the future.

Ed Archuleta (UTEP)

Ed and his team had to come up with a plan to persuade people to start conserving water. At the time, he says, the average El Paso resident was consuming around 750 litres of water per day. Over time, that number has dropped to around 450 litres a day, but, clearly, more drastic measures were needed: to develop something called a closed-loop water supply.

A closed-loop supply, or in this specific case, a system called "direct potable reuse," means that all the water used in the city gets recycled and put back in the pipes. And yes, that technically means people are drinking their own urine, after it has been treated and purified.

The idea of recycling human waste back into potable water isn't new; astronauts about the International Space Station have been doing it for years. Now, however, it's possible to do this on a larger scale. "The technology is there to be able to do it," Archuleta said. "It's primarily the  idea of concern that people might have about that."

So how does the manager of a water utility convince people that drinking their own waste is a good idea?

Archuleta said there have been numerous focus groups and that more than 80 per cent of residents support the plan.

And the real solution, he added, isn't technologicial. It's behavioural. And that took time; nudging human behaviour is a much more challenging infrastructure project than building a water treatment plant.

So Archuleta held meetings, gave "state of the water" addresses, and even had a TV show at one time—all aimed at getting residents to conserve water.  "We went into the schools for example because I knew that the kids would be the future customers."

Archuleta, who retired from the city and is now the Director of Water Initiatives at the University of Texas at El Paso, said cities everywhere—even those with apparently unlimited access to fresh water—should be concerned about preserving water. And that means planning for longer than the usual election cycles.

"We made a lot of progress because we set our sights 50 years in advance and not looking two or four years down the road."

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