'Desal' option for city's water future carries its own risks
Feb. 16--SAN ANTONIO -- As the San Antonio Water System has steadily prepared for the day a few years from now when it will, for the first time, turn brackish water into drinking water, the utility has run into some opposition, though nothing insurmountable.
But that could change as it proposes to pump and desalinate even more of the brackish water that lies beneath Bexar County and the surrounding area.
Some fear that SAWS, while seeking to diversify its supply, could end up wagering too much on brackish water while ruling out other solutions to the city's future water shortfall, namely buying freshwater that would be piped here from miles away.
Weir Labatt, a former city councilman who has strenuously advocated for better water policies in Texas, supports desalination but believes the city could fumble yet another chance to buy freshwater from outside the Edwards Aquifer.
"San Antonio has had a history of failed attempts to secure additional water," Labatt said. "What I hope is this is not another chapter in that same story. I'm afraid it might be."
SAWS is already gearing up for desalination, the process to remove some of the salt and other dissolved minerals from brackish water after it is pumped from the aquifer below, and plans to have a "desal" plant in South Bexar County ready by 2016. As production ramps up, it could yield about 33,000 acre-feet a year, or almost 11 billion gallons, SAWS estimates.
Though no decision has been made, the SAWS staff recommended that the SAWS board commit to an expansion of the desal project, adding 50,000 acre-feet of capacity a year, as need arises, probably not until 2027. At the same time, SAWS would reject three proposals from companies that want to sell an equal amount of freshwater to SAWS that would be delivered by pipeline from other aquifers.
The 50,000 acre-feet represents about 21 percent of the 2013 customer demand of 236,000 acre-feet.
Unlike the freshwater proposals from the private sector, the desal project, estimated to cost $300 million before expansion, is eligible for low-interest loans from the state's water fund.
SAWS touts the desal project as a model that could work in conjunction with CPS Energy if it decides to locate a natural gas-fired plant at the site, called Twin Oaks, which straddles the lines between Bexar, Atascosa and Wilson counties.
But even Labatt, an ardent supporter of desal technology, said SAWS sought a risk-free venture with a company for freshwater without openly discussing risks of its desal expansion.
Although El Paso and some other Texas cities have demonstrated the benefits of desalination, Labatt said local water politics could interfere with SAWS' plan. The utility would have to get a permit from the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District, which oversees groundwater supplies in Atascosa, Wilson, Frio and Karnes counties.
"It's all dependent on getting a permit," Labatt said. "There's no project in the world that is risk-free."
Mayor Julian Castro, who sits on the boards of SAWS and CPS, said as much Monday, noting that "each of these paths has some risk to them." Castro stands firmly in support of SAWS' desalination plans.
But he reaffirmed a commitment to expand the city's "water portfolio." Castro spoke of the need to make decisions about expanded desalination "in the full light of day," keeping a "vendor option" in mind for the future, possibly through a shared-cost venture, with other cities drawing from the same pipeline.
"I have confidence in the staff's recommendation to expand the community's water resources through brackish desalination," the mayor said in a statement. "At the same time, we need to analyze it as a board and keep our options open with respect to freshwater."
Nine local business and technology leaders, including City Councilman Joe Krier, sent a pointed letter to Castro, urging him to rethink the SAWS recommendation to "jump headlong into a project that utilizes nascent technology and may involve considerable regulatory risk." The group asked for a committee of the SAWS board to thoroughly compare the brackish water plan with the freshwater proposals.
Krier said he supports desalination, but he, too, has seen other water-resource plans at SAWS fall by the wayside, and doesn't want to lose another opportunity to diversify.
"This would be plan No. 10 or No. 11. The issue is whether this should be the only tool for our future," said Krier.
Although the SAWS recommendation is expected to be discussed and possibly acted on at a joint SAWS/CPS board meeting next month, Krier said, "I would hope we're going to hear something at City Council soon."
SAWS CEO Robert Puente said he's meeting with local leaders and critics of the recommendation.
"The circumstances have changed, to change the assumptions" about the city's water needs, he said. "They have a right to be concerned about the change in direction. It's up to me to allay those concerns."
Arthur Troell, an Atascosa County geologist and self-described water activist, was among the people angered in 2007 when they learned of SAWS' efforts to look for brackish water there. He and his wife said the county is growing, partly as a result of hydraulic fracturing of the oil and gas industry, and is not interested in piping water to San Antonio.
"Is it right for big cities to bully smaller counties? I don't think so," said Patsy Troell.
This time, SAWS is focused on brackish water in Wilson County, which has a distinctive underground layer of heavy clay that separates brackish water in the Wilcox Aquifer from the freshwater Carrizo Aquifer, Puente said.
SAWS expects less opposition there and will lobby for legislation providing for long-term permits to pump the water beyond the current term of five years.
"We feel that these permits are attainable," said Puente, who intends to assure Wilson County residents of vast supplies of brackish water available, including more than 400 million acre-feet in the 20-county San Antonio region.
Russell Labus, field technician at the Evergreen district, said hydrology studies the agency has for Wilson County are "very preliminary." SAWS would have to get drilling and production permits to draw brackish water there, he said.
In their recommendation against buying freshwater from three prospective bidders, SAWS officials cited risks involved, and obligations to pay for water that a company might not be able to provide, or that's not needed during a rainy year in San Antonio.
Labatt counters that SAWS could store or sell any excess water during wet periods to other regions suffering from drought.
"Somebody's going to want that water," Labatt said.
Another concern is the cost of water for the energy-intensive expanded desalination, an estimated $1,816 per acre-foot, exceeding projections for the three freshwater proposals. Puente told the SAWS board the project is actually a "little bit more expensive" than the highest-ranked freshwater proposal led by Abengoa, a Spanish conglomerate with extensive experience in utility projects.
"But that's if we start building that project in 2018," Puente said of the expanded desalination, which would not break ground until around 2025.
John Littlejohn, president of the V.V. Water Co., another of the three bidders, called the SAWS staff's singular focus on desalination "a Hail Mary of the first order."
"There's really not sufficient comparative information," Littlejohn said. "This is a city that's headed for greatness. But are you planning for greatness?"
V.V. Water offered the lowest projected price of $1,173 to $1,320 per acre-foot. But SAWS officials said local opposition and other factors made the proposition too risky.
Littlejohn disputes those concerns and said time is running out for SAWS to buy freshwater, particularly in the part of the Carrizo Aquifer east of Austin, where Abengoa proposed tapping water. "There will be limited sources for SAWS going into the future," Littlejohn said. "The window is rapidly closing."
SAWS trustee Reed Williams said he's concerned about the cost projections, as well as permitting issues and deep-well injections of dissolved solids, which sometimes draws opposition from environmentalists, in the desalination project.
"Anybody who thinks they've got the answer here, I don't think they do. We need to keep our options open," he said.
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