Gusher of information greets committee

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, July 2, 2014

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The Joint Interim Committee to Study Water Desalination drank from a firehose of information Monday at its third and final hearing, held in Wichita Falls – the hometown of its chairman, Sen. Craig Estes.

If only water were so abundant.

Wichita Falls made national headlines after seeking permission to re-direct its treated wastewater back into the water supply. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Friday granted the city a six-month permit to do exactly that.

Water World

WATER WORLD — State Sen. Craig Estes listens to testimony during Monday’s committee hearing in Wichita Falls. Messenger photo by Bob Buckel

Within a couple of weeks, 5 million gallons of treated wastewater will flow directly back into the city’s water treatment plant every day – about 30 percent of the water supply for this city of 105,000.

Wichita Falls typifies the drought facing much of Texas – and it’s not that far up the road.

Lake Bridgeport, which supplies water to most Wise County residents, sits at 41.4 percent of capacity. The two lakes that supply water to Wichita Falls, Lake Arrowhead and Lake Kickapoo, are at 22.7 percent capacity and have been steadily declining since 2010.

The city’s mayor, Glenn Barham, told the panel Monday that without re-directing wastewater, the city would run out of water in about two years if the drought continues.

Wichita Falls has had strict water restrictions in place for nearly three years, cutting water use roughly in half – from 15 to 17 billion gallons a year to 8 billion gallons last year. They’re on pace to use only 5 billion gallons in 2014.

“This community has stepped up to the plate,” Barham said. “Without our folks taking this water issue seriously, we’d have been in a lot worse trouble.”

He said the object of the committee’s study – desalinating “brackish” groundwater to make it usable – holds a great deal of promise both for his city and the state as a whole.

“Desalination, in my viewpoint, is critical for the state of Texas,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to have to be done on a very, very large scale in order to satisfy water demands for communities into the future.”

He said the cost of desalinating groundwater seems less when compared to the expense and time involved in building reservoirs – which might not fill up.

Compared to the cost of running out of water, it’s nothing.

“This is no longer a local issue,” Barham said. “I’m excited to see the state of Texas stepping up to the plate and taking care of water issues that are soon to come, not only to us, but eventually to water-rich areas of the state as well.”


The committee, which held its first meeting in Austin and met last week in Corpus Christi, is co-chaired by Estes and Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, with four senators and six House members on the panel. Wise County’s representative, Phil King, is on the committee but was among three members who could not make the Wichita Falls meeting.

Among those testifying at Wichita Falls’ Kemp Center for the Arts were:

  • Texas A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., Texas State Climatologist;
  • Texas A&M – Kingsville professor Lucy Mar Camacho, Ph.D.;
  • Dan Hunter, executive director of the Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research at Tarleton State University;
  • Dan Buhman, assistant general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District;
  • Clayton Henry, vice-chairman of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and a member of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee;
  • Brian Sledge, co-chairman of the committee and a principal at Sledge Fancher;
  • Kyle Frazier, executive director of the Texas Desalination Association;
  • Darrell Peckham, hydrologist with Water Quest Inc.;
  • Bill Norris, engineer with Norris Leal;
  • Carlos Rubenstein, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board;
  • Dr. Robert Mace, the board’s deputy executive administrator for science and conservation;
  • Linda Brookins, director of the water supply division for TCEQ;
  • Laszlo Karalyos, chairman of GAIA Clearwater Inc., a company that creates constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment.

Neilsen-Gammons, the official State Climatologist, opened with a summation of Texas’ current weather pattern.

“In the six-and-a-half years from] Oct. 1950 through April 1957, Wichita Falls received 74 percent of normal rainfall,” he said. “From Oct. 2010 to the present, a bit less than four years, Wichita Falls has received less than 60 percent of normal rainfall.

“As I see it, for Wichita Falls this is the worst drought on record.”

He did, however, hold out a little hope for relief, based on the development of “El Ni o” conditions in the tropical Pacific.

“If that comes through, that would tend to increase the chances for a wet winter across Texas,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a sure thing, but at least the odds would be in our favor.”

Camacho spoke of new technologies that could combine desalination plants with energy production, increasing the efficiency and lowering the cost of both.

“There is no way to produce energy without water,” she said, “and there is no way to treat water without energy. There needs to be a collaboration.”

Tarleton’s Hunter said the goal of his institute is “solve problems through good science” and spoke of the need for a unified data base for all the information coming out about Texas’ brackish water.

Buhman, whose entity controls Lake Bridgeport’s water, reviewed TRWD’s efforts in the areas of conservation, re-use and reservoirs.

He noted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had just issued a $150,000 grant to TRWD and the City of Wichita Falls to study the feasibility of augmenting their water supply systems with “impaired” groundwater.

In response to a question from Sen. Eddie Lucio, Buhman said cost is a factor in desalination.

“We have to balance the cost of new water supplies versus the reliability or how it changes our system,” he said. “As that cost comes down, it absolutely drives us to look at it more seriously.”


Other speakers touched on the availability of brackish water, the impact of desalination plants on cattle raisers, and the process of applying for permits to put in a desalination plant.

Rubenstein said there are 26 different permitting actions required to bring a desalination plant online.

Frazier said cost depends on where the brackish water comes from, what type of process is used, and where the water goes once it is made drinkable.

Norris, who serves on the association’s board, said the process is not as expensive as many people think.

“Brackish water desalination is generally no more expensive than doing some other method of treating surface water,” he said. “Cost is a site-specific issue.”

He noted that in Brownsville, a desalination plant treating brackish groundwater is actually less costly to operate than the city’s regular surface water treatment plants.

Mace estimated there are about 2.7 billion acre/feet of brackish groundwater resources underneath Texas.

Karalyos said the wetlands process his company uses – involving layers of specific types of rocks as well as plants that absorb particulate matter – is capable of converting not only effluent, but brackish water and even oilfield frack flowback into water that can be discharged into surface storage.

Co-chairman Hunter summed it up near the end of the hearing.

“I want you to know I’m for it,” he said. “I thought it very enlightening what’s been said about the cost of desalination – but don’t think we’re not pushing it. If the climatologists are correct, water is better than no water.”

He referenced the continued growth of Texas and the fact that some industries are now putting in their own desalination plants, just to assure a reliable supply of water.

He issued a challenge to all those at the hearing.

“My charge to you is to think of the future of Texas,” he said. “Water is disappearing. We’ve got to look at alternatives and think outside the box.”

The committee will meet two more times, in Brownsville July 28 and in El Paso Aug. 11. Both meetings will be visits to operating desalination plants that are already supplying water to those cities.

It will be a glimpse into the future – a future that may be a lot closer than Texans think.

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