Taking water from the ground, using it, and putting it back

After driving past a half-dozen wild antelope, Rodney Preisser gets to the real attractions of this gray-green Colorado range. Over here, he points to a possible site for a school. There, he indicates a plan for residential housing. ``Land and water,'' he says, above the din of stones and grit clinking against the underside of his truck. ``You have to have those two basic things'' for development.

Here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, water is so vital that Mr. Preisser, president of a local water company, and a group of investors are proposing a radical solution for a new development here. Instead of drawing on water supplies and then discharging the wastewater somewhere else, as is traditionally done, they want continuously to recycle and reuse the local groundwater.

``It's a thing of beauty,'' exults Jack Sheaffer, a prime booster of such systems and a participant in the Colorado group's effort. ``It requires little energy, doesn't require chemicals, doesn't have sludge-handling, [and] doesn't require much personnel.''

If this idea sounds simple, it is also controversial. Many water experts are skeptical that the idea will catch on. Only a handful of such systems exist in the United States. Later this month, county officials will decide on a sketch plan of Preisser's site, which is several miles east of Colorado Springs. Developers are very interested in the area because a nearby military space-operations center is under construction and will draw in thousands of new workers.

For more than a century, nearly all communities have used linear systems -- tapping a clean water source, using it, then discharging it downstream. The loop idea flies in the face of that tradition: Water is drawn up from wells, used, then collected and treated in lagoons. Later it's sprayed onto extensive lawns or crop fields and, as a final purification, seeps through the ground till it reaches and replenishes the groundwater. Then the process begins again.

Stormwater is collected and also helps resupply the groundwater. The system thus helps fertilize the vegetation and provides a ready supply of water to control fires. There are no connections with city water mains or another water source.

``You're solving flood control and drainage, water quality and water supply with the same dollar,'' Mr. Sheaffer says. He calls this process the ultimate solution to a water crisis he says is caused by poor management rather than short supply.

``What the people in the United States need to learn is that there is no new water on the globe,'' he says. ``Every glass of water you drink has gone through 10 Indians and 50 buffalo before you got it. . . .''

So far, three systems are operating that utilize Sheaffer's ideas. Muskegon County, Mich., runs one. North Glenn, Colo., has another. And a hotel-office development in Itasca, Ill., runs a third. A few other systems, such as the Colorado Springs effort, either are under construction or discussion.

Is this idea the ultimate solution to the US water crisis? Many experts grudgingly accept it as a partial solution.

``This is an alternative to be considered among many others,'' says Allen Kneese, senior fellow at Resources for the Future. ``I don't think that any single technology is the solution to every problem.''

``Reuse is a part of the puzzle, but because it's expensive, it's not a very big one,'' says Philip Metzger, an associate in the water resources program of the Conservation Foundation. ``In most cases, some other source of supply is going to be less expensive.''

In the three systems already operating, traditional water sources were either unavailable or not wanted for local reasons. But Sheaffer argues that other communities will be interested in the idea. When all the costs of a development are considered -- supply, treatment, stormwater drainage, and firefighting -- the circular solution is less expensive, he adds.

Whether Sheaffer's ideas catch on or not, they are an example of the change in thinking that is occurring among water experts, says Mr. Metzger of the Conservation Foundation. ``The clich'e that we're moving from an era of development to an era of managing our water resources is true,'' he adds.

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