Mike Pusley on desal

It’s our choice, so let’s make a change

My first-year geology professor told our class that we would all live to see the day when a barrel of water cost more than a barrel of oil, well she was right, that day is here.  We are not even into the summer months and already our water supplies (lakes) are at 50% capacity.  So as painful as it may be, Corpus Christi must act now to address its increasing demand for water to support future industrial and residential growth, while protecting us from higher cost. The Corpus Christi City Council is currently pursuing a plan that will require residents and customers to pay for the construction and operation of a 10 MGD seawater desalination plant estimated to cost at least $222 million.  But, as with most projects of this size, the final cost will most likely exceed this estimate, not to mention the cost of yearly maintenance and operation.  That M&O number must be factored into future City budgets. 

To be clear, I am a strong supporter of desalination and truly believe it’s a part of the solution that can free us of the constant problems our City has faced as we go from one water shortage to the next.  Concerns as to whether industry will stay or locate here, issues with residents being forced to curtail their water usage and, most importantly, what the long-term ramifications are for not having adequate water resources are all issues that have plagued our City for years.

The City’s current plan to bring desal to our area has several problems but these are the main ones: 1.) They plan to borrow the money for construction, 2.) who will pay that cost, industry ? property owners ? 3.) they are planning a facility that will dump excess brine stripped from the sea water into our horbor, 4.) the unknown cost to own and operate a desal facility.

The City doesn’t need to borrow the money nor do they need to own and operate a desal facility.  As we are all aware, governments never operate anything very efficiently and certainly not cost effectively.  For 30 years our City struggled to fix a pothole properly, how do we expect they can operate a complex desal facility.  Then apply State and local regulations and the fact that the cost of government ownership is always more expensive than a private sector business.  There are numerous companies that specialize in desal and they will provide the engineering, permitting, cost of construction, and operation of our desal facility.  All we have to do is provide the take or pay contracts for the raw water they provide.  This has the potential to allow our City to provide local industry with a reliable, uninterrupted raw water source through a negotiated, long term contract.  At the same time, rate paying water users will not be saddled with paying for the $220 million dollar loan and the yearly operating cost.

As to the brine disposal, there are far too many environmental issues associated with disposal in the inner harbor or the coastal bays.  The better solution is to go off-shore with the disposal where it has been proven there is actually a halo effect around the disposal sites and all sea life proliferates.  This is what most companies in the business of building desal plants will tell you and we need to heed their knowledge in this area.  Permitting will be an order of magnitude more difficult for anything that impacts bays and estuaries and could derail the entire project.

Although I whole heartedly support desal and its implementation I am also a realist and I know that a desal solution will take time to complete.  That said, we still need to move as quickly as possible to solve our short- and long-term water shortage issues.  One way we can do this easily and inexpensively is to take advantage of our abundant sources of groundwater. 

Currently, Corpus Christi relies 100% on surface water for its water supplies (rivers and lakes).   While surface water is our sole-source today, throughout the years the City of Corpus Christi used groundwater as a key component of our regional water supply, helping to pull us through major droughts in the 50’s, 60’s, 80’s and 90’s. As recently as the mid-1990’s groundwater from the regional Gulf Coast Aquifer supplied approximately 10% of our water, but when the Mary Rhodes Pipeline was completed, the City abandoned its wells.  Kingsville, Sinton and Refugio, rely on groundwater as a primary water source for residents and industry, as do Houston, San Antonio, Lubbock and many other Texas cities.  The Gulf Coast Aquifer is a prolific, drought-proof, sustainable source of water, which in some locations is drinking water quality right out of the ground.

Drilling wells and delivering water through pipelines is a centuries-old, proven technology and groundwater resources can be developed in months, not years, to supply substantial volumes of water to meet the region’s current short term needs.  In fact, the reservoirs for the majority of this groundwater are located in very close proximity to the Mary Rhodes Pipeline such that a connection could be made with very little effort or cost.  This water resource is available now and at a very low cost and the City should move quickly to access it to supplement our limited surface water resources.

The Coastal Bend likely will ultimately need both groundwater and desalinated seawater in the long term to provide abundant water supplies for residents and industry.  But we need to be smart in how we develop these resources such that industry and property owners reap the benefits and are not saddled with a bottomless pit of expense.  Remember, if we do this correctly everyone who lives north of Corpus Christi becomes a potential customer.

The alternative – it’s never going to rain enough, so we keep draining the lakes, rationing water, curtailing industry and charging rate payers more every year.  It’s our choice, so let’s make a change.

Mike Pusley
Lifetime resident of Corpus Christi
Candidate for Corpus Christi City Council At-Large