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Two water stories

The future of Texas’ water supply sure is a hot topic in the papers these days. I hope that continues after we start getting normal rainfall again.

Story One is about desalinization:

For El Paso and a growing number of Texas cities, the question isn’t whether they have enough water, but what price people are willing to pay to make it drinkable.

Aquifers beneath the Chihuahua desert are filled with brackish groundwater, belying the seared landscape above. Salty water rushes down rivers. And the Gulf of Mexico offers a virtually unlimited supply.

For centuries, Texans had cheaper ways to quench their thirst. But population growth – up 20 percent over the past decade, to 25 million people, and predicted to almost double by 2060 – is driving up demand, just as the supply is shrinking. The latest draft of the state water plan predicts existing supplies will fall by 10 percent in the next 50 years.

But Texas has more than 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, enough to meet current demands for more than 176 years.

For many cities, the cost of desalination – up to four times that of other water treatments, sometimes even more for seawater desalination – is no longer a deal-breaker.

The state’s first permanent seawater desalination plant will open on South Padre Island in 2014. Until then, all of the state’s 44 desalination plants – most of them small, scattered across West Texas and the Rio Grande valley – treat brackish groundwater.

The El Paso plant is the state’s largest, capable of producing 27.5 million gallons of water a day for city customers and those on the Fort Bliss Army post.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said John Balliew, vice president of operations for El Paso Water Utilities, which worked with the U.S. Army to build the $91 million plant.

See here and here for some background. The good news is that there’s plenty of brackish water in Texas, more than enough to meet the needs of the growing population, at least in the drier western parts of the state. The bad news is that it costs more than fresh water to use, and I suppose no one really knows what if any negative effects there may be from sucking that water out from underground. The other good news is that the need to use a more expensive water supply ought to encourage conservation – using less is always cheaper than finding new supplies. Be all that as it may, I think we’re going to see a wave of desalinization plant construction, which means it’s just a matter of time till we get the first major scandal involving some kind of financial shenanigans having to do with such construction. That’s when you know an industry has really arrived in this state.

Story Two is about reclaiming wastewater.

Wastewater – the water that runs down the drain as you brush your teeth, wash dishes and clothes, shower and flush your toilet – will be increasingly important to Texas’ future. The 2012 state water plan predicts use of so-called “reclaimed water” will grow by about 50 percent by 2060, to 614,000 acre-feet per year, or more than 20 million gallons.

“It takes a little bit of getting used to,” said Midland Mayor Wes Perry, whose city already uses treated wastewater to irrigate the grounds of Midland College and will add it to its drinking supply in 2012.

“When you start talking about drinking water, that is uncomfortable,” Perry said. “But if you look at other places, they’re doing it. It’s a psychological thing more than anything else.”

California, Florida and a few other states already add treated wastewater directly to the drinking supply, but this will be a first for Texas.

I suppose I had always assumed that treated wastewater was part of the equation, so the “ick factor” mentioned in the story doesn’t affect me. We’ve actually been doing a little bit of this on our own, by putting a basin in the kitchen sink to catch water that we use when washing our hands, rinsing dishes, or dumping unused drinking or cooking water. We then use what we collect in the basin to water plants outside, since it’s perfectly fine for them. Baby steps, but I figure every little bit less that we use the hose to water outside is a win.

What do you think about this stuff? Does any of it bother you?

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One Comment

  1. Like energy, conservation will be key to meeting demand. I was intrigued to read that the acre-foot cost of de-sal water is about that which L.A. now pays to import it. I’m not optimistic that today’s Texas will make the investment it did after the drought of the ’50s. More likely that Texas officials will allow private exploitation of this necessity. In “The Ripple Effect” Prud’homme predicts “ghost cities” that clear out as their water supplies fail.