This commentary originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on June 15, 2015.
For water policy in Texas, the 2015 legislative session ended not with a bang, but perhaps with a trickle.
Currently awaiting the governor’s signature is a bill requiring a study on the use and development of brackish groundwater and seawater in large-scale desalination facilities to provide more potable drinking water for Texas now and in the future.
For many in Texas, the spring deluge has removed concerns about water scarcity. Nonetheless, population growth in the Lone Star State is expected to continue for the foreseeable future and Texas must create plans to develop, conserve, and use water resources responsibly. In pursuit of these goals, desalination can step in to take some of the burden off of our fresh water.
The Texas Water Development Boardestimates that Texas rests atop 880 trillion gallons of brackish groundwater. This is enough water to cover the entirety of Texas in a depth of 15 feet and to support Texans’ current level of water consumption for 150 years.
Though not defined in Texas law, brackish water is commonly understood as water containing 1,000 or more milligrams of dissolved solids. Typically, the majority of the mineral mix making up these dissolved solids is salt, though many other minerals can be present as well.
Legislation that ultimately passed this session made an attempt to establish that common meaning of brackish groundwater as a baseline in its earlier versions. As can happen in the legislative process, the final bill featured a conciliatory broadened definition.
In a limited way, Texas is already using brackish groundwater — but nowhere near to its full potential. Presently, Texas has 34 desalinating plants dedicated to brackish groundwater and 12 more for seawater. In different parts of the state brackish groundwater is used for irrigation and agricultural needs, as well as in oil and gas operations, lessening fresh water use.
Use of desalination for drinking water has had some success in Texas. El Paso’s Kay Bailey Hutchinson facility is the largest brackish groundwater desalination plant in the state, treating 27 million gallons of the 73 million gallons of water treated daily.
San Antonio is close on El Paso’s heels, however, with a new desalination facility slated to come on line in 2016. Initially that facility will be able to treat 10 million gallons of water daily, but planned expansions will leave it capable of processing 25 million gallons daily in the following decade.
Like many of the water bills that passed this session, brackish groundwater legislation chipped away at some of the previously legislated impediments to increasing the available water supply in Texas.
An example of an existing impediment, Groundwater Conservation Districts (GCD) have a large impact on developing new desalination plants for industrial use due to rules that impose limits on pumping and exporting water outside of the district. Although the permitting process can vary widely among GCDs, the lack of statutory distinction between fresh and brackish water means that the two are treated as equals when a permit is sought.
By regulating all groundwater in the same manner, GCDs decrease the economic incentive to tap into what could be a very vital resource to Texans and industry as well as reduce reliance on freshwater.
Leigh Thompson is a policy analyst with the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.