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desalinization

Brazoria looks at desalinization

Booming population growth plus greater upstream demands on their main water source equals thoughts of alternate water supplies.

By the time the Brazos bisects Brazoria County on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s all but tapped out, unable to keep pace with new urban demands.

To firm up its water supply, a Brazoria County utility is moving quickly to pump from a massive saline aquifer beneath the Houston region’s surface. The Brazosport Water Authority’s roughly $60 million project – once the first phase is completed in 2017 – would convert millions of gallons of salty water into potable, or drinking, water each day.

The process, known as desalination, is used across Texas, mostly in the drier western half of the state. The Lake Jackson facility would be the first of its kind in greater Houston, which typically benefits from plentiful rain and full reservoirs. The city of Houston, in particular, is planning to meet its long-term needs with surface water and reused wastewater.

“It’s a bad time for rivers in Texas, and we’re only going to see more demand for water,” said Ronnie Woodruff, general manager of the Brazosport Water Authority, which has relied on the Brazos to provide water to seven cities and a massive chemical manufacturing complex. Brackish, or salty, groundwater “is a new, reliable source.”

Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, but the stubborn drought, which now covers three-fourths of Texas, has infused the discussion about its possibilities with a jolt of urgency. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for one, has instructed a state Senate committee to study how to expand the use of brackish water before the Legislature convenes in January.

Texas already has built 46 desalting plants for public-water needs. But there is the opportunity for manymore, considering the state holds about 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, the Texas Water Development Board estimates. That’s more than 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually.

For all its untapped potential, desalination of brackish water might not be a cure-all for a thirsty state, experts say. In addition to the cost, which will result in higher rates for customers, the desalting process requires disposal of the leftover brine in a way that avoids harming fresh water and the environment.

And it is still unclear how the push for brackish groundwater will impact the Houston region’s persistent problem with subsidence, the sinking of soils as water is pumped from underground. The geological condition can crack pavement and cause flooding. Several coastal communities are weaning themselves from groundwater because of the issue.

[…]

Some people worry that the project will become a high-tech monument to panic. The water authority should focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh, a former Brazoria County commissioner who served on a local water-planning task force.

“God gives us water, and then He expects us to use our brains,” she said. “I’m not against brackish desalination, but I think we should be looking at other things first.”

I’ve written about desalinization a few times before. It’s an increasingly popular proposal around the state, as there’s plenty of potential supply. But it’s expensive, there are issues with what to do with the briny wastewater, and as noted no one really knows what the subsidence effect will be. No question, the best alternative is always conservation, and I don’t think that gets enough emphasis. If cities like San Antonio and El Paso can do it, surely Brazoria County can as well.

Drinking water from the Gulf

Well, there is a lot of water there.

The wicked drought gripping Texas has made one thing clear to Bill West: There is not enough water to meet new urban demands and competing environmental needs.

So in his search for new sources of water, the general manager the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is looking in another direction. West plans to tap the Gulf of Mexico.

The river authority has launched a two-year, $2-million study into the economic viability of building a seawater desalination plant by the Texas coast, a technology being used in Australia, Singapore and the Middle East that has been slow to take hold in North America.

[…]

The cost of desalting seawater is usually many times more than that of conventional water sources, such as rivers and reservoirs.

The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that water from a desalting plant will cost about $2,000 an acre-foot, roughly enough water to satisfy two or three families a year. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which supplies water for a fast-growing corridor between Austin and San Antonio, now sells water from the Canyon Lake reservoir for $125 an acre-foot.

Energy is the primary driver, accounting for as much as 70 percent of the operating costs of a seawater desalting plant, said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report.

“In a number of places, desalination always has been too expensive,” he said. “But now the cost of developing conventional supplies is rising, making the cost of desalination more viable.”

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority would build the desalting facility with a power plant near Victoria, about 130 miles southwest of Houston. The power plant likely would be fueled by cheap and plentiful natural gas from the nearby Eagle Ford play, though the feasibility study also will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

“The energy part of the equation has changed over the years,” said Les Shephard, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which will help the river authority on the project. “Now is a good time to look at natural gas.”

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Most of what has been talked about so far has involved brackish water, of which there is plenty in Texas. It’s cheaper to process, since it’s not nearly as salty as seawater. I get the impression that things must be getting desperate if using water from the Gulf is looking like a viable option.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s idea “seems awfully Herculean for what we need,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy and law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It does not get to the heart of the matter.”

Hardberger said the river authority should look more closely at using water more efficiently before building a big desalting plant that could cost more than $1 billion. She is among those who are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future.

Others are bullish on a brackish desalination. The groundwater is much less salty than seawater, so purifying it is much less expensive. The San Antonio Water System, for one, is building a $145 million desalting plant above the Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of the city.

There are 46 brackish desalination plants across Texas, with nearly 40 more facilities included in the state’s long-range water plan. The state holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, which is 150 times the amount of water Texans use each year, according to the state water board.

But West said the Gulf is more attractive than a salty aquifer because he can avoid the often nasty permitting fights with the special districts that oversee groundwater. What’s more, the river authority’s project is an important piece in an “all-of-the-above” water portfolio, especially with climate models showing Texas getting less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.

See here for more on what San Antonio has done, and here for all my previous blogging on desalinization. I’m curious about putting a desalting plant in Victoria – wouldn’t you also need to build a big pipeline to get the water there in the first place as well? Most of the previous stuff I’ve seen on desalinization had to do with brackish water, which is found all over Texas, but in browsing my archives I didn’t see any indication of how much it cost to desalinate brackish water, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I do agree with Prof. Hardberger that conservation has to be the first priority, as that is always the cheapest option, but in the long term I suspect desalinization will be a part of the equation. I don’t know how much of that will be Gulf water, though.

One thing I’ve yet to see mentioned in any story about desalinization is what to do with all the excess salt – technically, the brine water that is left over, which can be 15 to 25 percent of the intake, from what I can tell. If you take salty water and extract all the fresh water you can, you’re going to have to do something with the extra super salty residual water, right? Fortunately, the Sierra Club of Texas has done the heavy lifting on that, and you can read all about it here. If we’re going to go down this road – and I believe we are – we need to make sure we have sufficient environmental controls in place so that we don’t create bigger problems than the ones we’re trying to solve.

Who gets to use the water?

There’s a lot more demand for an increasingly limited supply.

Lake Austin

More than miles separate the rice farms of the Texas coast and the Highland Lakes, where the outward march of Austin is marked by each new house, strip mall and marina.

They are divided by how to share the water of the Colorado River, pitting agriculture against recreation in a state that values both.

Growers have turned on a new plan that would guide allocations in the lower Colorado basin for the next few decades, grousing loudly about water cutbacks to help preserve playgrounds. Meanwhile, those who live and work around Lakes Buchanan and Travis want guarantees of boater-friendly levels at the reservoirs.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider the plan by April. How the three-member panel rules could influence management of Lake Conroe and other popular reservoirs across the state.

The water fight reflects changes in Texas since farmers began drawing from the Colorado in 1885. The Lower Colorado River Authority built the lakes to generate power and tame floods in the 1930s, and the state’s population has surged since then, with more and more people moving into communities that barely existed, if at all, when the dams were constructed.

The state projects the population of the lower Colorado basin to double to 2.8 million people by 2060, and it is clear that there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.

“The issue is, Texas is a different place than when this system was set up,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University. “We have to find a way to equitably allocate these shortages in a future that is nothing like the time of its origin.”

Growing population + drought + old rules = conflict. Obviously, agriculture is important, but I’m willing to bet that the revenue derived from tourism, recreation, and property taxes on lakefront real estate add up to a pretty penny, and will likely be more valuable on the whole than agriculture soon if it isn’t already. We know what we need to do – conservation, desalinization, not using treated water for irrigation, etc etc etc – and we know it will cost money and cause heartburn. We still have to do it.

You may be wondering if all that recent rain has helped these lakes recover. Sadly, not much.

Despite this already being the 11th-wettest July on record in Central Texas, officials said the unusually large amount of rain has not been enough to make a significant impact on lake levels in the area.

Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority, said Austin has received 5.82 inches of rain this month at Camp Mabry — a far cry from July 2011, when the city received 0.05 inches of rain.

[…]

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said Lake Austin received so much rain so quickly Sunday that officials were forced to open two floodgates to let out some of the water. The last time they did that was during Tropical Storm Hermine in September 2010, Tuma said.

However, because June was such a dry month and because the heaviest rains were not in the watershed, the storms did not make an appreciable impact on lake levels, she said. Lake Travis remains 28 feet below its historical July average.

Long way to go still. I’d be happy to send them some of our rain if I could, but then we might need it.

Patterson talks desalinization

Interesting.

Jerry Patterson

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.

Desalinization and power plants

The Trib has another story about desalinization in Texas, and reading it brings up a point that I don’t think gets enough attention.

KBH Desalinization Facility

Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water. The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)

Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said.

But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso. (Odessa’s deadline for proposals is next week.)

Separately, a planned power plant near Odessa is studying prices for the technology. John Ragan, the head of Texas operations for NRG Energy, envisions natural gas power plants along the coast that desalinate water overnight when they are not needed for electricity. Residents near the half-full Highland Lakes in Central Texas say that desalination could reduce the water-supply burden on the lakes. Texas Tech University aims to begin wind-powered desalination research later this year, in the West Texas town of Seminole.

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water. Natural gas plants use a lot less than coal plants, though they still use a lot. Renewable energy – wind and solar – pretty much don’t need water at all. See this Texas Water Development Board report about power generation and water usage through the year 2060 for more. Desalinization needs to be part of the mix in Texas – we have more than enough brackish water to supply the entire state – but desalinization requires a lot of power, and power generation, at least as we do it today, requires a lot of water. Everybody understands that greenhouse gas and climate change implications of renewable energy versus coal and gas, but the water use implications are as important. The more we invest in renewable energy the better off we’ll be in more ways than we might think.

San Antonio going for desalinization

Another thing we’ll be seeing more of in the near future.

The San Antonio Water System is now pumping salt water in southern Bexar County as it looks for new water sources for the city.

Tuesday the utility gave a tour of one of its first production wells in the middle of pastureland that will tap the lower Wilcox Aquifer.

Because it is an expensive new project going after a new source, it will be watched closely by residents for possible impact to local water supplies and by state officials for its potential to set an example of a new water source for Texas.

The $145 million project is expected to produce 10 million gallons a day by 2016, when the desalination plant and pipelines are complete. That’s about 5 percent of San Antonio’s daily demand, according to SAWS.

Anyone know what the verb form of “desalinization” is? I’m not sure, but for what it’s worth “Desalinating” doesn’t trigger Chrome’s spell-checker, so I’ll go with that. The total amount this plant will eventually generate is relatively small, but this is just phase one. They anticipate expanding it to produce up to 25 million gallons per day if all goes well. This also has the benefit of not causing any legal disputes with neighboring counties whose fresh water San Antonio had been eyeing. The main downside is that it’s more expensive – five times the cost of drawing water from the Edwards Aquifer. That’s both better than not having enough water, and another demonstration of why conservation is easily the cheapest option.

The story notes that there’s more than enough brackish water underneath Texas to meet its demands, and includes something that I’ve been wondering about.

At about half the salinity of sea water, the water of the lower Wilcox is too salty for use in irrigation and until now has been left alone.

But through reverse osmosis treatment, salt-free water can be extracted, SAWS staff explained.

The remaining water, which is left with a much higher concentration of salt, is injected into the brackish portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

How much thought have we given to all that very salty water that is the byproduct of desalinization? I’ll take SAWS’ word for it that what they plan to do here is an acceptable solution, but how good are the disposal options in general? I don’t think we have any choice but to explore desalinization on a broad scale, I just worry that we’re creating another pollution problem for which we have not adequately thought about solutions.

The state of water in Texas

The Statesman has a long story about the state of water in Texas and its outlook for the future. Short summary: We’re going to need more than what we’re capable of getting now, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to bridge the shortfall.

2012 State Water Plan

“For most of our recent history, we just treated (water) as if we had an unlimited supply of it. We’re finding to our dismay that that’s not true,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University.

One clear indication that Texans need to rethink how they value water came when the state asked for $53 billion in improvements to prepare the state for a record-breaking drought in the next 50 years.

The cheapest strategy in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 water plan is conservation, which would account for 24 percent of the new supply by 2060; the costliest, desalination, would account for about 3.4 percent of the new supply.

But the prospect of a future crisis doesn’t necessarily make consumers more willing to open their wallets.

“It can be hard to convince ratepayers that they need to pay more money to get that security in their supply,” said Robert Mace, the board’s deputy executive administrator for water science and conversation.

It may come as little surprise, then, that lawmakers have failed to ensure sustainable funding for the water plan.

“I don’t think there’s been a greater dereliction of duty” than failing to fund Texas water needs, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas , said Jan. 10 in a Business and Commerce Committee hearing, where lawmakers were told that a dwindling water supply can also affect the state power grid, as most energy production relies heavily on water to cool power plants.

You can find the 2012 State Water Plan here if you want a little light reading for your bedside table. We’ve talked about a lot of this stuff before as well – conservation, desalinization, reuse and recycling, infrastructure, and so forth. I’ll refer you again to the Drop By Drop and Sprayed Away reports, as well as the 2011 Regional Water Plan. I truly believe we need to be doing a lot more now to push conservation, because it’s not only the cheapest solution, it also buys us time for implementing the solutions that require capital investment. I strongly believe in tiering water prices in a way that rewards those who use less and charges a premium to those who use the most. I also believe in educating people about ways they can easily reduce their own water usage. One example is capturing rainwater for later use on gardens or lawns. You can buy a decent-sized rain barrel for $150 or less and use your sprinkler less. Every little bit helps, and if you want to avoid seeing future surcharges on your water bill, you’ll need to start thinking of what you can do. NewsTaco has some further reading.

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?

Farmers really worried about the drought

No surprise, and there’s not really much that can be done right now, but if this year was bad for farmers, next year could well be worse.

Texas needs rain — and needs it quickly — to keep farmers and ranchers from suffering even bigger losses next year from the drought that already has left them with record-breaking losses this year, producers said Friday in San Antonio.

Corn growers in Texas could encounter even bigger losses in 2012 after seeing output fall by 40 percent this year; and rice plantings, which fell by only 2 percent this year, could be cut nearly in half if more water does not become available soon, officials said.

“It could drive us to acreage levels we’ve probably not seen in 80 years or more,” said Ronald Gertson, a Wharton-area rice farmer who was on a panel at the San Antonio International Farm & Ranch Show that was looking at the state’s water needs. “Without some serious rain in the next two months, we’re going to be at that 50 percent level.”

[…]

Agricultural irrigation uses about half of the water that is consumed in Texas annually, and about 80 percent of that comes from groundwater resources, said Ed Vaughan of Boerne, who chairs the Texas Water Development Board.

With the state’s population nearly doubling by 2060, Texas will need more water resources to meet all its agricultural, industrial and municipal needs, Vaughan said.

He and state Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican who presented a legislative update at Friday’s symposium, said desalination of brackish water presents the best opportunity for increasing water supplies because brackish water projects can be completed faster and for less money than other options.

With forecasters saying the drought may not break until mid-2013 — and that the next 15 years could be drier than normal — the state has to get serious about expanding its water supply or both agriculture and Texas’ industrial base will suffer, Larson said.

Which will cost money, lots of it, and as we have seen the Lege and our Republican leadership are not too keen on that. Maybe another year of bad times will change some minds about that, but you would think that it shouldn’t be necessary.

Our long term water plan

We’re in deep trouble if things continue as they are.

Every five years, the Texas Water Development Board publishes a water plan for the state. The 295-page draft of the 2012 plan, published last week in the midst of the worst-ever single-year drought Texas has ever experienced, is a sobering read.

“The primary message of the 2012 state water plan is a simple one,” the introduction states. “In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, and its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”

The report is packed with data and projections, but a few stand out. The state population, now 25 million, is expected to increase to 46 million by 2060. During that time, existing water supplies will fall 10 percent as the Ogallala and other aquifers are depleted.

If Texas does not plan ahead, a drought as bad as that of the 1950s could cost Texans $116 billion a year by 2060, the report says, and cause the potential loss of more than one million jobs.

Building new reservoirs and wastewater treatment plants and other water infrastructure is projected to cost $53 billion.

You may recall that this is the plan for which no money has been budgeted by the Lege. Feeling thirsty yet?

Couple things to note. One is that the main danger in making such long term projections is that you have no way to know if whatever growth rate you’re assuming for things will hold true. To go from 25 million people today to 46 million people in 50 years is an annual growth rate of 1.23%, which is considerably less than the 1.89% annual rate we saw from 2000 to 2010 but still more than the 0.93% rate for the US as a whole from that same period. Any number of things could change that rate one way or the other, and if so it could have a sizable effect on the 2060 population. There’s a reason these estimates and plans get updated periodically.

Conservation is mentioned throughout the report as a necessary strategy, with different regions having different levels of urgency. In places like the Panhandle, conservation is upwards of 80% of the 2060 strategy volumes; in other areas, it’s 20% or less, or even not explicitly mentioned in the highlights. In addition to conservation, new reservoirs, water reuse, and desalinization are all in the mix. It’s a big document and you might not understand all the technical terms – I sure didn’t – but take a look and you’ll get the general idea. And consider mentioning to your State Rep and State Senator that maybe thinking about all this, and how to pay for it, is a good idea.

Not a drop to drink

I have two questions regarding this Trib story about the dire drought situation in Odessa.

The city of Odessa, facing a dire drought situation, is looking to an unlikely example for help in finding water: the desert city of El Paso.

Water pressure in Odessa dropped in August, and residents can only water their lawns during the dark of night. Two of the three lakes the city normally relies on for water are almost completely dry. The other is less than 25 percent full and is expected to run out late next year, said Guy Andrews, director of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce.

But a few hundred miles farther west, El Paso’s half-million residents have plenty of water even though they live in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert, thanks to a massive desalinization plant and a successful 20-year-old conservation program.

Odessa is apparently a good candidate for a desalinization plant. They sit on top of a lot of brackish water, which is less salty than ocean water and thus less expensive to turn into fresh water. The story says that the Odessa Development Corporation, which is the entity investigating this, is seeking to raise up to $50 million from private investors and hopes to have a plant up and running in the next two to three years. Which makes me wonder, what exactly happens in the meantime if that third lake runs dry? What other sources of water do they have?

Also, as the story notes, El Paso has been aggressively promoting water conservation, which has resulted in them not being particularly affected by the current drought. The desalinization plant treats 27 million gallons of water a day, which is nearly 10 billion gallons a year, while the conservation efforts save another four billion gallons a year. What if anything is Odessa doing, or has it been doing, to push conservation? Restricting when you can water your lawn is one thing, but as El Paso has shown, providing incentives to get rid of them altogether and replace them with plants that need less water is better. (Tiered pricing is also a good idea.) What has Odessa been doing to prepare itself for this day? The story doesn’t say. Does anybody know?