Tom Spencer: Look before leaping into the desalination pool

Spencer is the Texas Living Waters program director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Despite recent floods, the intense drought that had Texas in its grip from 2010 to 2015 still haunts our imaginations. All across the state, reservoirs shrank to alarming levels, homeowners struggled to keep their landscapes alive, wildfires raged and agricultural losses ran into the billions of dollars. State leaders worried about the long-term implications for the Texas economy — how could we grow and produce jobs if we run out of water? Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry even proclaimed three “days of prayer for rain” in 2011.

Against this backdrop, the idea of desalinating water from the Gulf of Mexico for use in our homes, farms and factories seems like a very tempting idea. After all, the Gulf offers a near limitless supply of just what we need and it is right there in our backyard. However, we should look before we leap into the desalination pool. Desalination, done poorly, will not be the answer to our water prayers.

There are multiple reasons why Texas did not rush into desalination during the drought. Desal plants are expensive to build and are also extremely energy-intensive to operate. In short, the economics of desalination are questionable.

In addition to the economics, there are geographical issues to be addressed when it comes to desalination. Both the intake of water into the plants and the discharge of the superconcentrated salty waste are fraught with perils if they’re located in fragile coastal environments. Without adequate measures to protect the superproductive fisheries and bays of Texas, desalination would be a disaster of our own making.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that desalination of ocean water does hold real promise for Texas as a supplement to existing supplies. The real question is will Texas get desalination right?

In response to recent legislation, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has proposed rules streamlining the process to authorize diversions and discharges for desalination facilities along the coast. The proposed rules, although a good start, do not include adequate protections and must be strengthened to protect our bays and coastal wildlife. Across the globe, desalination plants are adopting new technologies and environmental safeguards to protect their coasts. Why should Texas ask for less?

Texas’ bays need a robust mix of fresh water and salt water to be productive. Essential fresh water inflows into our bays from rivers and streams are already greatly reduced by upstream dams and diversions. Bays, particularly the fresher portions near river mouths, serve as “nurseries” for the vast majority of marine fish caught by both sport and commercial fishing operations. Desalination diversions and discharges improperly located in bays could seriously damage these critical nurseries.

In addition to sucking up the fresh water as it enters our bays, poorly located desalination intakes can also suck up young organisms, potentially by the billions. In addition to preventing intakes in sensitive locations, the rules must define adequate measures to prevent young fish, shellfish and other animals from being sucked against or into desalination diversion openings.

The ideal outcome is that desalination plants should not be allowed to place in-take “straws” in our bays — period. The same thing applies to the highly salty discharge from desalination plants. At a minimum, if proposed anywhere in a bay, a desalination intake or discharge must be subject to careful scrutiny. Strong permit conditions must be designed to protect our natural heritage.

The Legislature called for streamlining the approval process, but left it to TCEQ to adopt rules to balance streamlining with environmental protection. Here is one simple rule: Make it clear no desalination diversion or discharge operation can be exempt from permit requirements unless it is located at least 3 miles seaward from any point on the coast, including all barrier islands and any passes or cuts between islands that connect the waters of the Gulf and Texas’ bays.

Unfortunately, where permits would be required, TCEQ has proposed to limit its notice of rule changes to an email that would be sent a select few state legislators and two agencies, plus an announcement on the TCEQ website. County and local officials would be kept in the dark, along with concerned residents. Surely TCEQ can send emails to county judges and commissioners — as well as with residents who specifically ask for email notice — without unduly slowing down the permit process.

Desalination, when done right, can provide us additional drought-proof water supply. That’s a good thing — but only if we don’t sacrifice our coastal fisheries and natural heritage in the process. How about it, TCEQ?

TCEQ is accepting public comments on the proposed streamlining of the desalination process through July 5. Please join the National Wildlife Federation and voice your concerns here:

Spencer is the Texas Living Waters program director for the National Wildlife Federation.

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