The city of El Paso, Texas, will soon be repurposing treated wastewater to usable drinking water through a process called advanced purification. The project is designed in an effort to conserve precious water resources in the desert environment, as well as to diversify the water supply in innovative ways.
Purified water is high-quality drinking water that is produced using the most advanced treatment processes available. While typically used for irrigation and industrial purposes, today’s technology allows the city to take one step further in supplementing the local water supply.
Unlike other potable reuse facilities in the United States, which return drinking water to a treatment plant or blend with other raw water sources, the advanced water purification facility will use a direct-to-distribution approach, with the purified water flowing directly into the drinking water distribution system. The facility is estimated to produce up to 10 million gallons of drinkable water per day.
While some might shy away when hearing “wastewater” in the same sentence as “drinking water,” El Paso Water Utilities Communications and Marketing Manager Christins Montoya said that’s not the case with this project.
“We didn’t shy away from the awkward conversations,” she said. “We want people to talk about it and used it as an educational opportunity to share what we’re really doing. We’re not taking toilet water and putting it in the tap. We’re taking water that’s suitable for irrigation and to go back into the Rio Grande and taking that water and treating it again to get this purified drinking water.”
Before starting the project, a survey was sent out to residents to gauge public perception of the system and better inform materials moving forward.
“At first, it was about 84 percent that were in favor, but once we explained the technology and how it worked, the number rose to above 90 percent,” Montoya said. “We used that knowledge and research to include the explanation of processes in all of our outreach materials.”
Currently, about 30 percent of the facility is constructed, and while the final product is still as far away as 2023, the need for public transparency and education starts now.
“We’ve built up a lot of trust with our customers and our residents are ready to receive this type of facility,” Montoya said. “Yeah, if you looked at 10 years ago, implementing a direct reuse facility like this, things would have been different. Now, people across the U.S. are more accepting of this due to things like climate change. They know we need to diversify. They know the technology is there.”
The advanced water purification facility will employ a four-step process to ensure water is drinkable for residents: membrane technology, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection with advanced oxidation and granular activated carbon filtration.
While those terms sound really technical. Montoya hopes through a facility designed with public interaction in mind, the process will become humanized and commonplace for El Paso residents.
“We offer tours of our facilities and encourage transparent conversations. We’re actually designing the facility with the mindset of giving tours — a viewing area so people can understand the technology and be really informed about the process,” she said. “Once people understand, they feel better. We want to make the technology available for people to see and understand.”
While a major benefit of the facility is, of course, the peace of mind that comes with a diversified water supply, another perk is the uptick in job-force placements the city expects to experience.
“Anytime you build a new facility it brings jobs to the community,” Montoya said. “This definitely will bring jobs to the area. Especially in this type of facility, where it’s unique when you look at other water treatment plants. Our operators will have to have certifications and require skilled training.”
While the need for a facility of this nature is great, the next hurdle faced by developers is one of economics.
“We’re trying to find the most cost-effective way to pay for this,” Montoya said. “We’re applying for a lot of state and federal funding to eliminate the burden on our ratepayers. We’re trying to get ahold of as much funding as we can to minimize the impact on our customers and make this transition smooth.”
With a number of moving parts and customer satisfaction at the helm, Montoya is optimistic for the future — not only of the facility but of the reputation of El Paso in the industry.
“The global exposure of our innovative technology here in the desert allows us to be a role model for other communities,” Montoya said. “This facility would be the same. We would be a game changer in the industry.”