Water Supply Comes Down to Money

Aug 1, 2009 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times by Dan Kelley | Related Press

CORPUS CHRISTI — The Coastal Bend’s population is projected to rise to roughly 885,000 in 2060. That’s an increase of 344,000. It’s also a lot of thirsty mouths and a lot of lawns to water.

How the Coastal Bend gets its water in the future depends on how much it is willing to pay. From building huge pipelines to constructing desalination plants, there are options. None of the options are particularly cheap, but some bring more water, and higher costs, than others.

Planning for water shortages in Texas is done on 60-year timelines, benchmarking predicted water needs against the worst droughts on record.

Some climate change models predict the South Texas region could become hotter and drier in future years. But Egon Weber, director of the Center for Water Supply Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says population growth, not climate change, will likely be the biggest driver of water needs here.

Planners predict that demand for water could exceed supply in the worst droughts by 2030. That shortage could come earlier in areas dependent on groundwater.

But as costly as many of those options are, a major drought could be more expensive, resulting in a loss of population and economic development, especially in water-intensive industries like mining and heavy manufacturing. Water shortages in the Coastal Bend could cost the region $3.2 billion in 2060, according to the Coastal Bend Regional Water Plan.

Conservation of water used in irrigation, for example, is one of the least expensive possibilities. Yet it would also yield very little water.

The area’s next large source of water is likely to come from the Colorado River. In 1999, the city paid $15 million for the rights to 35,000 acre feet of water per year. But it has yet to build a means to access that water, known as the Garwood Water Rights. Some projections say the city won’t need water from Garwood until 2030.

That has raised fears that legislators could pass a law that assigns the city’s rights to some other, more politically powerful and faster-growing city.

Timothy L. Brown, the Austin-based attorney who has handled Corpus Christi’s water issues since the 1980s, said the Legislature would have to compensate the city for the loss of its rights. There is a possibility that those rights could be taken away, but it is remote.

There are two options to access that water, and thus ward off potential competitors. The first is to build a pipeline at a cost of $100 million. Another option: Use existing irrigation canals to divert the water to Lake Texana. That would cost much less, $5 million, according to former City Manager Skip Noe, but has another downside. As much as 30 percent of the water could be lost in transport.

Building the pipeline has become a key goal of industry.

In a June 9 letter to City Manager Angel Escobar, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority asked the city to make building the pipeline its highest priority.

The city has also dabbled in other measures that could augment the city’s water supply.

One involves taking advantage of occasional heavy downpours. Such rain events commonly provide more water than reservoirs can handle. The city developed a plan to store some of that water in large underground aquifers. The water could then be pumped in the future.

Weber said the plan has certain advantages over storing water in reservoirs, namely that it cuts loss caused by evaporation. He said reservoirs lose up to half of the water they store to evaporation.

Another option, which is promising but too expensive, involves removing salt from sea water, known as desalination.

Noe said that with current technology, desalination might cost as much as $3 per 1,000 gallons. That doesn’t include the cost of delivery, and is seen as far more expensive than other options.

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