Desalinated Water Has Hidden Costs

October 21, 2014

Should water be free? No matter what answer, the truth is that our state is growing drier and drier as more and more people move here. Our state legislature, through the Joint Interim Committee to Study Desalination, is looking to technology to solve Texas’ water worries. However, they fail to consider the many complications around the costs of manufacturing new water.

It’s a simple but brilliant idea: turn undrinkable salt water into fresh water. Leading Texans think that we can manufacture new water supplies during lean times, and this Committee hearing focused on how previously underutilized brackish groundwater and sea water can be turned into fresh. In the Committee’s mind, a few plants and some pipelines strategically placed along brackish aquifers will settle the future of water shortages in Texas. We can just turn long-neglected salty groundwater into tap water with the flick of a switch!

There are many more costs than the Committee was willing to publicly acknowledge. Senator Hinojosa, to his credit, was the most strident in requesting direct comparisons to current water costs. Despite his numerous efforts, witnesses repeatedly defended inland brackish facilities as more cost-effective. They acknowledge that conservation can only go so far (30% of our projected future need), and that new water must be made. According to Texas Water Development Board representatives, inland brackish water desalination has fewer brines to dispose of, no coastal erosion to worry about, and longer facility lives due to lower equipment scaling.

What the Committee and Texans need to realize is that brackish groundwater aquifers are not certain resources. Drastically tapping into brackish aquifers could wreck the already fragile state of groundwater in Texas. The science behind brackish and fresh water aquifer interactions is not settled, which means that previously un-utilized salty groundwater can diminish existing fresh supplies. The committee sought clarity on the interplay between fresh and brackish groundwater, but the answers were murky. Instead of asking these questions to scientists, the committee should understand that every person with a well in the state is a stakeholder in the desalination of brackish groundwater, and that the currently narrow discussion does a disservice to all.

The Committee’s focus seemed to avoid several prickly issues around groundwater management. Pollution of brackish groundwater aquifers has not been monitored, simply because Texas did not think this salty water would ever be useful. Even Senator Estes, a conservative stalwart and friend of oil and gas interests, raised the possibility of contamination of these heretofore unmanaged reservoirs. How can this Committee leave the issue of pollution unsettled?

This is a young and promising infrastructure for Texas, but we cannot kid ourselves about the costs of implementation. This is not simply tacking on some new capacity to an existing system, but opening up a whole new paradigm of water management. Should water be free? The Joint Interim Committee to Study Desalination, and Texans, hold out hope that the answer will be “yes”.