November 26, 2014
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy boldly claimed, “If we could produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.” Today, as populations increase and water supplies are stretched, we are still hunting for ways to produce fresh water at a low cost. On November 6, 2014 in Austin, the Texas Water Development Board adopted rules needed to fully implement the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, the $2 billion funding mechanism meant to provide low-cost loans for water projects in Texas.
On the same day, in San Antonio, members of the South Central Regional Planning Group (Region L) met to discuss, among other things, the projects in its regional plan. That regional plan, along with those of the other fifteen planning groups in the state will go into the State Water Plan. One such project is a joint effort between the Texas General Land Office, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Guadalupe Basin River Authority (GBRA), and MWH Global to desalinate seawater. The project would provide fresh water for sale at the wholesale level within the GBRA service area in South and Central Texas.
Desalination has its pros, namely that it involves tapping into a virtually endless water supply in the Gulf of Mexico. But it also has its cons: desalination is expensive and energy-intensive. Adding a conveyance system to carry water from the coast to Central Texas increases the cost and energy needs for such a project. This effort carries an extra drawback in that, unlike other projects in the regional plans, it aims to provide water for wholesale rather than to a certain user group in one of the sixteen planning groups. Regional plans are supposed to satisfy specific needs.
To overcome these issues, the GBRA project involves a co-located natural gas power supply to be used to reduce energy needs. The desalination project could also act as a conveyance system for other proposed projects, partnering to reduce distribution costs across multiple projects. The project was also proposed at the Lower Colorado Regional Planning Group (Region K) meeting with that purpose in mind. The unspecified user groups allow GBRA to satisfy needs of various users as they become apparent in future years, not just large cities that can spread out the cost of desalination over their many users. But that ambiguity still makes planning difficult.
Regional representatives at both the Region K and Region L meetings articulated a desire for the virtually endless supply of water that desalination could tap but still expressed concerns about cost and whether it would benefit their users. Rightly so: their job is to plan for their users’ needs at affordable prices.
But how do we get to a point where we can produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost without investing in the type of projects that can get us there? At some point, someone will need to make the investment. The low-cost, user-oriented, self-interested mentality of regional planning might be curbing innovation that we will desperately need in the future. This GBRA project could help shift those objectives. While desalination costs are high now, the development of more seawater desalination projects could help to improve the technology and reduce costs for future projects.