Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Un-salting the Earth: Jerry Patterson’s Desalination Ambitions

Photo courtesy of Texas General Land Office

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson wants to build desalination plants on state land.

Texas is sitting on a massive amount of “brackish” water. Too salty to drink, but far less salty than ocean water. A lot of it is just sitting there, below our freshwater aquifers. And there’s enough of it to satisfy the current Texas population for a hundred and fifty years. But how do we get to it, and how much will it cost to do so?

That question is now on the mind of the Texas General Land Office. Today Commissioner Jerry Patterson proposed building some smaller desalination projects in Central Texas to help meet water demand in the region.

“Everyone says the state’s population is going to double by 2060,” Patterson tells StateImpact Texas. “And I guess you could say there’s enough water. But it’s not in the right place.”

Patterson, who’s running for Lieutenant Governor in 2014, is looking at several sites that belong to the commission’s Permanent School Fund, all of them along the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio. “Anything we do to produce water for Central Texas reduces the impact on the Highland Lakes,” Patterson says. “That’s not only good for the folks that live around the Highland Lakes, it’s also good for those downstream consumers.” Patterson says less water taken out of the lakes means more for rice farmers, bays and estuaries, utilities and the petro-chemical industry.

But isn’t desalination expensive and energy-intensive?

Graphic by General Land Office

The desalination project would use brackish water deep underground and make it fresh.

“Yeah, it is,” says Patterson. “It’s about twice as expensive as some of our more traditional ways to acquire water.” And while desalination and reverse osmosis filtration require a lot of power, he says that they’re looking at the potential to power the plants, perhaps just in part, using renewable energy like solar and wind.

But Patterson thinks the investment would pay off, whether or not the money for the plants comes from the General Land Office or private investors. “The market is in play here,” he says. “We have the shortage of a commodity. We have increasing demand. Therefore the price of that commodity – what was thought to be expensive in the past, may look like a bargain in the future.”

The proposal would be far from establishing the first desalination plant in the state, all of which are inland at the moment. There are dozens of desalination plants currently in Texas, and more on the way. And El Paso has the largest municipal desalination facility in the country, capable of processing over 27 million gallons of water a day.

Patterson is quick to point out that he sees desalination as just one part of the solution to the state’s looming water crisis. He also advocates more conservation, accessing more groundwater supplies, and moving water from areas where it’s a surplus to where it’s needed most.

The agency has hired two water engineering firms to analyze the land. Patterson says that if all goes well, they could be breaking ground on the first of the plants in eighteen months.


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