Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is getting the state into the Central Texas water game.
Patterson’s office [announced Monday] that it has contracted with two water consulting firms to examine the feasibility of building a desalination plant between Austin and New Braunfels on land the General Land Office owns.
Desalination is an expensive, energy-intensive technique of making brackish underground water potable. Patterson’s plan — a first for the General Land Office, which manages Texas’ land and natural resources — would involve hoisting brackish water up at least 1,400 feet, from below a layer of underground freshwater.
“We want to do something scalable and deployable,” said Patterson, who said he is looking at placing a desalination facility either just west of Kyle or just north of New Braunfels. “This is one of the elements of solving Texas’ water problem.”
Patterson, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, would use money from the $26 billion Permanent School Fund to build the proposed desalination plant.
As chairman of the School Land Board, which manages the real estate portfolio of the fund, Patterson is charged with finding ways to make money for the Permanent School fund. The commissioner says it could be a good investment to spend money from the fund, much of which comes from oil and gas royalties on state land, on a desalination plant, which he says would cost in the “multi-multimillions” and take several years to build.
Or, he said, the land office could encourage “other folks to invest and we take some percentage off the top.”
Either way, the goal would be to provide water to a portion of Hays County where the General Land Office owns at least 4,500 acres. Bringing water to that land would make the property more valuable, increasing any asking price the land office sets for it, Patterson said.
It feels a little speculative to me, but I can’t dispute the need for water solutions or the potential reward. Patterson clearly has a good grasp of the subject.
“Anything we do to produce water for Central Texas reduces the impact on the Highland Lakes,” Patterson says. “That’s not only good for the folks that live around the Highland Lakes, it’s also good for those downstream consumers.” Patterson says less water taken out of the lakes means more for rice farmers, bays and estuaries, utilities and the petro-chemical industry.
But isn’t desalination expensive and energy-intensive?
“Yeah, it is,” says Patterson. “It’s about twice as expensive as some of our more traditional ways to acquire water.” And while desalination and reverse osmosis filtration require a lot of power, he says that they’re looking at the potential to power the plants, perhaps just in part, using renewable energy like solar and wind.
But Patterson thinks the investment would pay off, whether or not the money for the plants comes from the General Land Office or private investors. “The market is in play here,” he says. “We have the shortage of a commodity. We have increasing demand. Therefore the price of that commodity – what was thought to be expensive in the past, may look like a bargain in the future.”
Patterson is quick to point out that he sees desalination as just one part of the solution to the state’s looming water crisis. He also advocates more conservation, accessing more groundwater supplies, and moving water from areas where it’s a surplus to where it’s needed most.
I don’t see any problem with at least investigating the possibilities. As Patterson says, this is just one piece of the puzzle, and there’s a lot of demand that will need to be met. It would be helpful if some of Patterson’s colleagues came to grips with the reality that a complete solution for this issue will cost a lot of money, and that the longer we put it off the worse shape we’ll be in. If he wants to make that a campaign issue in 2014, that will be fine by me.