Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Pass the Saltwater: Desalination and the Future of Water in Texas

Photo courtesy of Rep. Reyes' website

El Paso Congressman Silvestre Reyes

Texas just capped a year drier than a week-old kolache, with record heat and rainfall totals a good foot or more below where they should have been. Some towns have actually come close to running out of water. And while above-average December rains helped much of the state, they didn’t do enough to restore water levels in lakes, rivers and reservoirs. The main lakes that supply Central Texas with water are at a combined 37% of capacity. If rains don’t come in the spring, the situation could become far worse.

But one desert city suffering through the drought has plenty of water left.

El Paso has, by its own estimates, enough water underground to last it at least a hundred years. Tonight Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will visit El Paso to highlight how the city has found innovative ways to source and conserve water. El Paso could stop getting water from the Rio Grande tomorrow and still be okay well into the next century.

So how did this desert city end up with an abundance of water, and what lessons can be applied from El Paso to the rest of the state? I spoke with Congressman Silvestre Reyes, who will be hosting the visit, today to find out. He was part of a group that led the city’s efforts to secure a potable future:

Q: How do you think projects like desalination might play a role in our future water management here in Texas, especially in light of this historic drought?

A: Well, we’re very proud of the cutting edge technology that we’ve been using here in the El Paso area. It’s not just the desalination plant, but [that] literally for decades the public service board under the leadership of Ed Archuleta has been doing very forward-leaning programs to protect and preserve the water that we do have.

Because we realize and we recognize that we live in a desert environment here, we’ve been doing things like providing incentives for El Pasoans to use water-saving toilets; incentives to switch to the water-saving high-efficiency washers and things like that that, [which] help us to conserve and preserve water here. It’s been a community-wide program to get people – especially our children – thinking about how we can preserve water and participate in green projects.

So, the desalination plant was important to us because when we were coming up with the 2005 BRAC – base realignment and closure – -the Pentagon had the mis-impression that we were a region that was going to run dry. That we were going to run out of water. So we came up with a strategy to build the largest inland desalination plant in the world, which is what we have today.

It has the capacity for 27 million gallons a day. Right now we’re running it at about 16-18% of its full operation capacity, so we have a tremendous amount of reserve.

And according to engineering studies we’ve done in the last ten years, we have an underground sea of briny water that will guarantee us 100 years of water running the desalination plant at full capacity. These are important parts that we want the secretary [of Interior Ken Salazar] to understand about our region, and also promote these programs throughout the country. So we’re proud to show off some of these programs that we think are very timely.

The other thing we’re proud of is that we’ve become a stopping place for communities around the country and also internationally – we’ve had people from the Middle East that have come here to look at these programs – to look at these successes that we’ve had in conserving and re-using water.

Q: Maybe Central Texas won’t be too far behind, we’re running out of water pretty quickly here.

A: I’ve invited many of my Texas colleagues to come out here. Chet Edwards, who represented the Waco area, actually came out here. His visit was twofold – one was military and the other was to look at some of the things we’re doing in water conservation. We’ve had former Congressman Solomon Ortiz, because Corpus Christi, though it’s right on the bay, was having freshwater issues. They eventually had to build a canal from Houston to bring freshwater to their reservoir.

Q: What role do you see the federal government playing moving forward with water conservation, reuse and desalination? And what role do you see the state playing?

A: I know that when we built the desalination plant here it was a joint project funded by the EPA, the DOD and the city. Those are the kinds of partnerships that pay off huge dividends as we look at how drought has impacted our area.

We still use surface water [from the Rio Grande river] based on a compact between Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. That’s why we always pay attention to the snowfalls in the wintertime in Colorado and northern New Mexico, because they wind up impacting our water capacity here in our region.

This is something – I’ve been in office 15 years – this was one of the priorities from the very beginning for me. There’s work that needs to be done to educate people about the importance of conserving water.

Q: Talking about the military BRAC. Did this desalination plant assuage those concerns?

A: This was the thing that I think put us over the top. The reality was we weren’t about to dry up and blow away, but that was the perception in Washington and at the Pentagon. I got elected in 1996, and I inherited [a situation] where Fort Bliss was going to be closed during the next BRAC round. So I went to work identifying projects I needed to deliver for Fort Bliss’ role in national security and also eliminate issues that gave the mis-impression that the federal government should stop investing in Fort Bliss because we were running out of water in this region. It wasn’t true, but it was a perception, so we had to fight very hard.

And the crowning issue to lay this to rest was building the worlds largest desalination plant. And Fort Bliss actually became the facility to gain the most during the realignment.

Q: Things like water reuse, desalination – these are things we’ve been hearing more and more about as Texas has been suffering through this historic drought. Do you think these are projects and programs that should be implemented in other parts of the state as the drought continues?

A: It’s something that I think certainly ought to be looked at. But remember, we had decades and decades of engineering studies to determine the availability of water that could be processed by the desalination project. We’ve had for decades the purple pipe program, where we water parks, cemeteries and golf courses using water that is non-potable and used for irrigation.

I think we have a good story to tell for any community that is under duress because of the drought certainly can learn a lot from us here.

Obviously conservation is the first line of defense. But if we see a continued drought we might have to look at other manners of reusing water.

And because we live in a desert environment here and because we’ve been outstanding stewards ourselves of environmental challenges, I think we have a good story to tell. I think communities can learn from us.


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