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Lawmakers Look to Gulf to Meet Water Needs

Texas lawmakers on Monday began looking at a seawater desalination bill proposed by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa that advocates say would offer "drought-proof" means of supplementing withering state water supplies.

The inside of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant in El Paso on April 16, 2012.

The drought is ongoing, lakes and aquifers are emptying, yet people keep moving to Texas. State lawmakers on Monday discussed looking to the Gulf of Mexico as a new source of water that, though expensive, might help slake the state's growing thirst.

“This is a drought-proof water insurance policy for Texas at a time when it needs it most,” said Stefan Schuster, the water resources strategy lead for MWH, a company hired by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to analyze the feasibility of seawater desalination.

While groundwater initiatives last year failed to gain traction in a web of property rights regulation, advocates of seawater desalination are touting it as a less-regulated, drought-proof way to meet state needs for drinking water and irrigation. Despite its high cost, lawmakers are hoping it will gather support that groundwater desalination bills never have.

Senate Bill 1738, proposed by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would create a legal framework for the construction of integrated saltwater desalination and power plants that could pull water from far offshore. The bill also calls for seawater to be regulated as a state water source. Currently, state law only regulates the use of ground and surface water. 

"The water code lacks guidance for the development of seawater desalination," said Hinojosa.

The bill would give the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality power to issue permits, and put the Texas Water Development Board in charge of putting together deals for desalination projects. Currently, there are 46 desalination plants in Texas, though all process brackish groundwater.

"We recognize the need to look at all water supplies," said Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, speaking on the bill. "It is going to be essential that we are thoughtful for how we provision water for growing cities, agriculture, energy and industry while making sure the environment is left intact."

Texas is among a number of states that have looked to the ocean to soothe their water woes. Florida and California both have desalination plants in operation, while the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere is set to come online in California this November.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has been among the initiative's main proponents in Texas. In 2013, it commissioned a two-year, $2 million dollar study to look at seawater desalination. It is due for release in coming months.

"It is time we start looking to desalination," said Bill West, the general manager of the GBRA. "We have successfully assembled a number of members on this project, and we believe the sooner we get started the better."

In preliminary findings, the GRBA estimates that if the legislation were passed, the first gallon of drinkable water would not likely be available for 10 years. Once online, a single plant could produce between 25 million to 250 million gallons per day. 

While desalination plants would supplement withering state water reserves, they raise other issues. The plants require large amounts of electricity, and environmentalists are concerned about the associated carbon dioxide emissions, and the immediate environmental damage the plants would pose.

"We have concerns about the bill that was filed as not being protective enough of the bays and estuaries," said Ken Kramer, the water resources chairman and legislative adviser for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, testifying against the bill. "We want to make sure we have strong protections for our marine resources."

The cost of seawater desalination is another cause for concern. While specific numbers were not discussed, the GBRA estimates that seawater desalination in the state would be at least a $1 billion project. 

"The Achilles' heel of desalination projects is the fuel costs, but we believe that it can be cost effective when blended with other water supplies," said West. "Desalination is expensive, but it is drought-proof, which is not true of groundwater or surface water. There is no water project today that is not controversial."

A related resolution, SCR 34, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, calling for the Texas Water Development Board to conduct a feasibility study on the use of brackish groundwater in Montgomery County, passed out of the committee, while SB 991, filed by Sen. José Rodríguez, calling for a study on the use of solar and wind power to desalinate brackish groundwater, also passed out of committee. 

The seawater desalination legislation was left pending at the request of Hinojosa. 

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