Texas lawmakers study water woes, desalination expansion

BETSY BLANEY, Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Hundreds of miles of Texas coastline may offer more than a scenic view in the coming years. One day, it could help solve the state’s water woes.

A committee of state lawmakers is studying whether tapping the ocean to turn saltwater to fresh water would alleviate a problem exacerbated by population growth and a persistent drought that has left Texas lakes at near-record lows.

The committee is also evaluating the benefits of building more desalination plants farther inland to filter brackish water, and plans to submit a report of its findings before the Legislature meets in January. The report could include legislative proposals aimed at expanding the technology across Texas.

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“The decisions we make now have great implications for our future,” said Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, co-chairman of the joint state House and Senate interim committee that has held three public hearings on the matter. “We’ve got to get this right or our children’s economic future is in jeopardy.”

The committee’s studies are part of a broader effort to evaluate hundreds of proposed projects involving new reservoirs, conservation and other methods that will be partially funded by a multi-billion-dollar state water plan over the next half century.

One of Texas’ most valuable untapped resources is its 367-mile coastline, where no desalination plants have been established to serve the public. Pilot projects have been conducted at two locations and both lawmakers and state water officials are researching their potential.

Much of the desalination expansion could occur farther inland, where some suppliers are already filtering salt and various minerals from brackish ground and surface water. And there is plenty more — an estimated 2.7 billion acre-feet — in the state’s brackish aquifers.

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Texas is already home to the world’s largest inland brackish water desalination plant in El Paso, and another under construction in San Antonio is expected to eclipse its production.

The San Antonio Water System recently broke ground on the plant that will eventually supply 12 million gallons of water a day to a region facing significant population growth and ongoing dry conditions, said system spokesman Greg Flores. The $411 million facility is expected to begin operations in 2016.

“Most years are not going to be like (the drought) we experienced in 2011, but we have to be prepared,” Flores said.

The combination of filtering brackish and ocean water could play an important role as the state’s water needs grow in the coming decades.

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Texas has 46 major desalination plants that operate for public use, producing less than 1 percent of the state’s 5.1 trillion gallons of water used annually. Experts have said Texas needs to capture at least 7.2 trillion gallons to meet demand in 2060.

Inland operations are more expensive. The Texas Water Development Board estimates the average cost to produce about 326,000 gallons of desalinated water from brackish groundwater ranges up to $782, while the average cost to produce the same amount from seawater ranges up to about $1,400.

Money from the state’s cash reserves are designed to help offset some of the costs. Last year voters approved setting aside $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund to pay for part of the long-term water plan. However, money for low-interest loans for projects won’t become available until January at the soonest, Texas Water Development Board spokeswoman Merry Klonower said.

Meanwhile, water officials and the legislative committee are researching how best to proceed with expanding the state’s network of desalination plants.

A draft of prioritizations submitted to the development board in June by each of the state’s 16 regional water planning groups include 44 new brackish and seawater desalination plants.

“In my opinion the state’s role in this is not to fully fund every project with grants or fully loan up any project,” said Estes, whose committee will tour the desalination plants in the next couple months. “The state’s role is to clear bureaucratic hurdles so hopefully free enterprise can come in and do what it does best.”