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Priming the pump: New Mexico town subsists on recycled water

Once you get past the idea, water recycling systems could be one answer to the reality of future shortages.
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Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Must have water on the brain right now, no pun intended.

Spoke a few days ago with Peter Johansson, director of strategy and business development for high-tech engineering concern ITT. Yes, that ITT, which happens to have a serious practice in water technology and innovation.

The reason for my briefing was a project that ITT was involved with in Cloudcroft, N.M., a town of about 800 people that used to have to truck in upwards of 20,000 gallons of fresh water every day. A drought threatened to turn the community into a modern-day ghost town. Necessity drove Cloudcroft to take some risks: Ultimately the town got $600,000 from the state to put toward a $2 million water re-use system.

Yes, folks, Cloudcroft runs on 100 percent recycled water. For dish washing, clothes washing, irrigation, street cleaning and drinking. The last one is the clincher.

Johansson says the "zero discharge" system is very unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that people tend get about phobic about the idea of drinking water that has been used for some other purpose previously. "Once they get past the stigma, however, this sort of solution could be deployed in a widespread way," he says. This is the sort of system you might find on a submarine or even a cruise ship, as an example, where everything is, if you will, closed-loop. You just have to prime the pump once.

The specific ITT technologies at work in Cloudcroft specifically include the Sanitaire membrane bioreactor, the WET reverse osmosis system, and the PCI ultrafiltration system. Johansson says these are not inexpensive technologies, and that is one of the biggest challenges facing communities and water utilities today. "The one thing this industry lacks is capital, people don't believe they should pay for water," he says.

Update on May 6, 2010: After reading some of the comments made below on the feedback loop, I spoke with Tom Stewart, the water maintenance plant supervisor in Cloudcroft, for an update. Here are two main points of clarification:

  1. Stewart confirms that the new system IS indeed offline, currently, because some of the concrete walls in the plant were found to be leaking. After working the better part of a year, the new technology was taken off-line in October 2009 and its old system was brought back online. Stewart says weather kept the two from fixing the concrete until now. Currently, the new system should be back in operation in August, he says, after patches are applies, concrete is poured and cured. "The system has been up and running since 2009," he estimates.
  2. While all of the water in the new system IS recycled, the state of New Mexico requires that the town source at least half of the drinking water from fresh (in this case spring) sources, according to Stewart. So, while all the water introduced into the system is recycled (for example, the town plans to take the football field and golf course off potable water resources), there are currently springs supplying half the drinking water supply. Cloudcroft was forced to truck in water during a drought period several years ago, but typically has a spring-fed fresh water supply. "They aren't making any more water," Stewart says. "That's why we are focused on reuse."
  3. One other point of trivia: Stewart actually won a federal stimulus grant of $200,000 to install photovoltaic solar at the water plant. Ultimately, the town hopes to run the plant off its own power, helping make it even more self-sufficient.

Johannson cites research suggesting that municipal water utilities are the least funded of all local utility business models. It is a struggle for many of them to invest in new technology, a struggle that is further outlined in the Ernst & Young report I wrote about yesterday. Depending on the figures you cite, there is an investment gap of $500 billion over the next 20 years when it comes to water infrastructure.

Not small.

Editor's note: The original headline of this post erroneously used the word "subsides," which means to wear down or sink, instead of "subsists," which means to support oneself. We regret the error.

Author's note: This post was updated on May 6, 2010, to include comments from Cloudcroft's water maintenance plant supervisor, Tom Stewart. Those additions can be seen above in italics. I've also taken the word "completely" out of the original headline after clarification from the Cloudcroft water maintenance plant supervisor.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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