Texas is facing drought and a booming population. There's a unique project in North Texas that hopes to meet the state's growing thirst for water: A wetland. Wastewater flows through the wetland, where plants clean the water.
The first light of day is like an alarm clock for creatures that depend on the East Fork Wetland Project, one of the largest man-made wetlands in the country.
That’s when insects and animals begin their daily search for food and shelter in this lush, soggy landscape 20 miles southeast of downtown Dallas, where visitors have counted more than 250 bird species.
But supporting wildlife is only part of what makes this project so valuable.
It’s also expanding the dwindling water supply for nearly 2 million North Texans by recycling wastewater through the wetlands.
“I can’t put a price on it. We’re using water that we couldn’t have developed otherwise,” said Mike Rickman, deputy director for the North Texas Municipal Water District, which serves more than 40 communities, including fast-growing Frisco, Plano and Rockwall.
During the past decade, drought has dried up district reservoirs. A plague of invasive zebra mussels made things worse by taking Lake Texoma, a primary water source, out of commission.
“When we lost 28 percent of our supply with Texoma as a result of zebra mussels, we didn’t have any surplus," Rickman said. "Our option was to buy as much water as we could from other utilities."
See the East Fork Wetland Project
A private-public partnership
Then the water district discovered landowner John Bunker Sands wanted to transform 1,800 acres of nearby farmland into a more natural, marshy environment. He needed water. The water district needed land to create a system that could expand its supply by treating wastewater with plants and settling ponds instead of chemicals.
Now at the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center, built in the midst of the wetlands, volunteer Bob Richie shows visitors how the project completed in 2009 supports wildlife and humans.
“We pull water out of the Trinity River. We process 45 million gallons of water a day that comes through here,” said Richie, pointing to a map of the wetlands project.
How wetlands clean wastewater
At the north end of it, the Trinity is mostly treated wastewater from laundry rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. It’s clean enough for the environment -- but not for drinking.
Instead of just sending the water downstream, an intake station pulls it out of the river and releases it into a series of ponds where more than 1 million specially-grown plants do their job.
“There are two kinds of plants in wetlands,” Richie tells the visitors. “There are aquatic plants that grow completely under the water. Then there are what’s called emergent plants. All these plants grow in hydric soils,” which are soils that stay moist.
He explained that as the water flows downhill, the sediment settles. The plants absorb nitrogen and phosphorous in a process called phytoremediation. Those chemical elements, found in fertilizer, are difficult and expensive for water districts to remove. But, for plants, they’re food.
These plants are workhorses
“The major workhorse of the wetlands is the bulrush. It’s the one that does the majority of the phytoremediation,” Richie said, referring to a stand of tall, green, grass-like water plants.
He points to another plant, pickerelweed, which also grows out of the water. Its heart-shaped leaves and clusters of blue-violet flowers provide food for wildlife and bees, while they also filter the wastewater that’s passing through.
In as little as a week, the wastewater is “polished” by the wetlands and piped back to Lake Lavon for final treatment.
Rickman says the wetlands recycle almost as much water as a reservoir produces at about one-fourth the construction cost.
Saving water, saving money
“If you compare (the wetlands) to Lake Lavon, this facility is just under 2,000 acres in size. Lake Lavon is 22,000 acres in size and when this is at ultimate capacity, it will produce the same amount of water annually,” Rickman said.
So why doesn’t every water district construct a wetlands filtering system?
“You need to have properties adjacent to your treatment facilities or close to the river or you’re going to have these extreme pipeline costs, because the majority of a project like this is the pipeline,” Rickman said.
The utility also needs to produce enough wastewater to maintain a marshy environment, and the land needs the right slope so the water can be moved by gravity.
Many water districts can’t find property with those characteristics, but this one did. That means less expensive water is produced faster.
There’s also the added benefit of the John Bunker Sands Wetlands Center visited by thousands of school children and adults each year.
Some like Kathy Nance may initially come for the wildlife, but they soon gain an appreciation for water conservation.
“People don’t realize we cannot make water. But the wetland here can naturally clean the water and the plants actually do a better job of cleaning the water than the treatment centers do,” Nance said.
It’s nature doing double duty. Providing sustenance for plants and animals, and one solution for quenching human thirst.
Learn more about the Texas water shortage
Watch Texas Perspective: Water. It's an hour-long documentary that aired Wednesday night on PBS stations across Texas.
Wichita Falls sees wastewater recycling as a solution
Earlier this year, KERA visited Wichita Falls, where leaders are looking to wastewater recycling as a way to solve its severe drought. Learn more here.