SAWS News: Brackish Groundwater Allows SAWS to Go Big with Desalination
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Brackish Groundwater Allows SAWS to Go Big with Desalination

Utility to recommend rejection of three private proposals as too risky

San Antonio Water System (SAWS) staff will recommend to its Board on Monday the pursuit of additional brackish groundwater supplies through a proposed groundbreaking partnership with CPS Energy to co-locate a natural gas plant on the same site as an expanded brackish desalination (desal) plant.

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  Archtectural rendering of SAWS' planned groundwater desal plant, which will begin construction later this year.  
Beyond the currently planned desal plant in southern Bexar County, SAWS has concluded that additional desalination capacity is feasible in the local area.

“Brackish groundwater is plentiful and unused in our region, and available for centuries,” said SAWS President and CEO Robert R. Puente.  “The State of Texas views desalination as a solution to meet future water demands, and so do we.” 

With the availability of brackish supplies in adjacent counties, further expansion of a desalination facility in partnership with CPS Energy could occur on the same site as the currently planned desal plant, the existing Aquifer Storage and Recovery plant, and a third project increasing yield from the local Carrizo Aquifer in southern Bexar County.  This co-location would save money on additional land as well as consolidating management and operation of several water supply projects.

As part of Monday’s recommendation, Puente is also expected to announce the rejection of three private groundwater projects proposing to pipe up to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Antonio from outlying areas in the state. 

The request for new water supplies issued by SAWS was meant to shift all risk to a private developer, calling for the developer to build the project and deliver water to a local SAWS pump station.  One private company, however, was unable to guarantee that water would be available throughout the life of the project while still requiring payments from SAWS.  

“The highest ranked proposal was unwilling to assume the risk of water being cut off by the groundwater district that regulates the supply,” said Puente of the project proposed by Abengoa Water LLC.  “We are also unwilling to ask our ratepayers to absorb the cost of a project with potentially no water.”

The private proposals would have required annual payments of up to $85 million for thirty years, and a rate increase of approximately 9 percent to 12 percent in 2019, not including infrastructure integration costs.

Groundwater conservation districts have the authority to regulate withdrawals of water from aquifers, often with little notice or process for appeal.  SAWS has experienced the curtailment decisions of groundwater districts in the past.

“Groundwater law in Texas leaves too much uncertainty and risk for the private and public sectors,” added Puente.  “I hope that the proposers and cities across the state will join SAWS in calling for the legislature to change the law so Texans can build projects to meet growing future demand.”

A second proposal from Dimmit County prompted the local Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, from which permits would be needed, to pass a resolution to “specifically oppose the exportation of large quantities of groundwater from Dimmit and Val Verde counties, as is being considered by the San Antonio Water System.”

The third proposal from Val Verde County has been met by fierce regional opposition and threats of legal challenges and the formation of a groundwater district with the purpose of impacting the proposed project.

Instead of committing to one of the proposed projects, SAWS plans on pursuing the expansion of brackish groundwater desalination in partnership with CPS Energy to ensure long-term supplies for the region.

Costs of an expanded desalination project can be spread over time as the water is needed.  A public desalination plant could also be eligible for Proposition 6 funding from the Texas Water Development Board, while the proposed projects are not.

“We appreciate the leadership of state officials attempting to remove the regulatory hurdles facing brackish groundwater development, and we will work tirelessly to ensure that such legislation is passed next session,” said Puente.  

Due to the flexibility provided by proactive planning and successful water management in recent years, an expanded desal project can be planned for the mid-2020s, instead of the 2018 date planned for the private proposals. 

Outdoor water conservation efforts, for example, helped San Antonio achieve  an estimated 2013 per capita water use of 127 gallons per day, surpassing the planning number of 135, allowing current water resources to stretch further and avoiding Stage 3 watering restrictions to date.

Additionally, the Regional Carrizo Aquifer project is now on line, and the Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility is exceeding expectations during drought.

Back to SAWS News Next: Q: Do You Know When to Water? A: Not on the Weekends


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