Facing the Yuck Factor 

How has the West embraced water recycling? Very (gulp) cautiously

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By Peter Friederici

High Country News

Sometime this fall, Mike Nivison plans to take a healthy swig of water that exemplifies everything you'd expect from a small resort town set high in a Western mountain range. The water will be cool, clear, refreshing. But it won't be pristine spring water pouring from some mossy crevice.

Nivison is Cloudcroft's village administrator, and what he anticipates savouring will come from the village's drinking-water treatment plant — and, not too long before that, from its sewage treatment facility.

Cloudcroft's will be one of the first wastewater systems in the United States to allow — or require, depending on your perspective — residents to drink treated wastewater that hasn't been naturally cleansed in a river or aquifer. It will be built entirely as a matter of necessity. At an elevation of more than 8,500 feet in southern New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains, Cloudcroft is high and, thanks to recent years of drought, dry.

"A city like San Diego can go buy more water," says Bruce Thomson, a University of New Mexico civil engineer who has been helping Cloudcroft develop its new water system. "It's expensive, but they can. But Cloudcroft is simply out of water. Because they're at the top of the mountain, there's no new place to drill wells. They're at the top of the watershed. They don't have any other alternatives."

Cloudcroft has only about 750 residents, but its population swells to a few thousand on summer weekends. All those people escaping the lowland heat can use more than a third of a million gallons of water on a single hot Saturday. But the village's major wells produce only about 150,000 gallons a day. To make up the shortfall, village officials have resorted in recent years to hauling water, which is expensive, inconvenient and energy-intensive.

Nivison figured that Cloudcroft's only sure source of what he calls "wet water" — that is, usable liquid, rather than theoretical legal rights or hard-to-reach water that might be buried somewhere deep underground — was right at his feet, in the stream of effluent pouring from the village's wastewater treatment plant. With several million dollars in state funding and the help of engineers from two universities and a private firm, the village has been building a plant to purify that water. After conventional treatments that settle solids and utilize microbes to degrade or remove pathogens, the plant will use multiple filtration methods, including reverse osmosis, to remove chemical contaminants. Then the water will be sent to covered tanks and mixed with groundwater pumped from the village wells.

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