Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Definition of ‘Brackish’ Stirs Debate at the Capitol

Photo by DPA /LANDOV

How salty is too salty when it comes to water? That was a hot topic this week at the Capitol.

Several representatives of groundwater districts testified on a whole host of water bills Tuesday at the Capitol, where they argued largely over one thing: what exactly is brackish water?

As Texas looks to build new water supplies, some lawmakers are advocating to look deeper underground than where our freshwater supplies lie. That’s where large deposits of salty, or “brackish,” wait, and could be desalinated for freshwater use. While not as salty as ocean water, exactly where to draw the line between fresh and brackish water was a key debate during a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.

Ty Embrey, an attorney representing several groundwater districts, started the debate when he questioned the definition of brackish water in a bill by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, HB 2334, which would make it easier for industries to desalinate salty groundwater and seawater. That bill, like most of the legislation dealing with brackish water at the Capitol this session, defines brackish water as “all groundwater with a total dissolved solids (TDS) concentration greater than 1,000 milligrams per liter,” according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Embrey expressed concern over the definition because he says legislative definitions like this are difficult to change in the future. He testified against five bills in the committee hearing because of this definition.

Harvey Everheart, representing the Board of Directors at the Mesa Underground Water Conservation District, also testified against Callegari’s bill — but only to protest the 1,000 TDS definition.

“Eighty-eight percent of our water analysis from the past three years has had TDS of over 1,000,” Everheart said. “If we don’t make some changes, then too much of our real local water will have the definition of brackish.” That could mean the water would have to go through desalination, which can be an expensive process.

The Safe Drinking Water Foundation says the U.S. guidelines for drinking water are a TDS of 500 or lower.

Stacy Steinbach, with the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, testified on the bill as well. She chose to remain neutral on the bill “as an indication of our willingness to work on these issues.” She says her organization supports desalination but also disagreed with the 1,000 TDS definition of brackish water.

“We don’t want this number to catch fire in other areas of state law,” she says.

Steinbach told Rep. Callegari the bill would be acceptable if the definition was changed to allow for brackish water to be defined by each groundwater district.

Everheart testified on or against so many bills in the hearing that at one point the committee Chairman, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, jokingly invited him to be a committee member.

In addition to the brackish water bills, the committee heard more than 30 bills, the majority concerning water conservation. All bills were left pending in committee.

Olivia Gordon is a reporting intern with StateImpact Texas.


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