Corpus Christi grapples with community debate over ocean desalination

The self-styled “Sparkling City by the Sea” could be the first to dive into ocean desalination — but many local residents are opposed.

By David Martin Davies, Texas Public RadioApril 1, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

With climate change, Texas is going to need a lot more water in the coming years.

Recently, Corpus Christi’s City Manager Peter Zanoni announced the coastal city was in Stage 2 water restrictions.

“We have to work as a community. It’s not the industry versus the residents or the commercial versus the residents. Everybody is in this together. We all use the same water,” he said.

Under Stage 2, landscape watering is allowed once every two weeks. But the large industrial users of water don’t have to cut back on their consumption at the refineries and plastic manufacturers, which use more than half of the water in the municipal system.

“The industry does use a lot of water,” said Drew Molly, the chief operating officer for Corpus Christi Water. “Some people find that appalling. Some people find that appalling how much water they use.”

Molly added that it’s his job to provide water regardless of who needs it. That job is getting tougher as more industrial users of water are coming to the Corpus Christi area. The surface water sources are not able to keep up with this increased demand.

So Corpus Christi is turning to the Gulf of Mexico for a solution. It is moving forward with what could be the state’s first municipal ocean desalination project.

The Inner Harbor Ocean Desalination project is expected to cost more than $750 million to construct, and the day to day operations will also be expensive.

The Texas Water Development Board said that the average cost to produce one acre foot of desalinated water from brackish groundwater ranges from approximately $350 to $800.

The average cost to produce one acre foot of desalinated water from seawater is projected to range from approximately $800 to about $1,400.

“Corpus Christi is going to have rate increases,” Molly said. He added that the cost for desalination will be passed on to the rate payers.

“I can’t tell you exactly what those rates are going to look like in terms of how this is going to impact the residential, commercial, industrial user,” he said.

A report to the Corpus Christi City Council in January laid out that water bills for residential customers could jump by more than 50% by 2030.

David Martin Davies / Texas Public Radio

Residents shared their concerns.

On a recent Sunday, Corpus Community members held a town hall meeting to share why they oppose the plan and how they would fight it.

“Hopefully we’ll get some people together to make some change,” said Mike Westergren, a former district judge.

He said desalination is for the benefit of the refineries and other massive industrial users of water. “I think industry under their proposal is not carrying their fair share,” he added.

Gene Tackett told the gathering he thought the industries are getting the desalinated water but the people of Corpus Christi will have to pay for it.

“So the city of Corpus Christi needs to understand that water is what is needed by the community — not by industrial factories,” he said.

And the placement of the desalination plant in the historically Black Hillcrest neighborhood is seen as discriminatory. A lawsuit has been filed to stop it.

David Martin Davies / Texas Public Radio

Mona Lytle, a long time resident of Hillcrest said that “we’re going to fight it, and we’re going to win.”

There are also environmental concerns that the hyper salty brine discharged from the desalination plant will harm the bay’s ecology.

The activists said they want to block the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality from granting a discharge permit. There is a public hearing on the permit application on April 18.

They also want a city vote on desalination.

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