Fearing the effects of prolonged droughts that are not uncommon in South Texas, Corpus Christi officials have taken steps in recent years to use an unlikely water source to meet future demand: the Corpus Christi Salt Bay. and the Gulf of Mexico.
To accomplish this, the City of Corpus Christi and the Corpus Christi Port Authority have spent millions of dollars in their respective efforts to obtain the necessary permits for the siting of seawater desalination facilities.
Desalination is a process that reduces the total dissolved solids in seawater to produce drinking water. Although seawater desalination is expensive compared to traditional water supplies, it is often considered a source of water capable of withstanding severe drought.
The proposals became more prominent as the city and port moved closer to obtaining permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. A handful of Corpus Christi City Council candidates are incorporating anti-desalination talking points into their platforms, taking a stand on a topic that was unknown to the general public until recently.
Many opponents of the proposals focused on the potential environmental impacts on the facilities, which would discharge all wastewater into sensitive habitats in the bay systems, while others said the facility’s operations would be a nuisance. important to nearby residents. Some, particularly those running for city council, have argued that seawater desalination plants are too expensive to license, build and maintain and would largely benefit local industry rather than residents.
While city and port leaders agree the facilities are needed to meet the demands of residents and industry, they have argued over where the facilities should be located and who should operate them.
City leaders accused the port of slowing down the city’s efforts to obtain desalination permits from state regulators and raised concerns that the port or a third party opening a desalination plant would harm the city business model. The city is the main supplier of water for more than 500,000 customers in the region.
The port filed relevant permit applications in 2018, nearly two years ahead of the city, and reiterated that it should not operate a facility. Instead, the port offered to issue the permits to the city or a third-party operator.
The port, at one point, said it would issue the city any permits it got. However, a written agreement to this effect is never materialized between the entities, causing city leaders to fear that the port may not follow.
In recent months, these disagreements have come to the fore in public meetings of the Port Authority and City Council.
The disagreement came to a head in April after city officials discovered The Port Authority has taken the first step in applying for a $495 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board for its Harbor Island desalination project — a move city officials said they won’t knew nothing. The city’s Inner Harbor project has already secured a $222.5 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board in 2020.
Responding to demands from city officials, the port rescinded the request, which was filed “procedurally in nature” and made without the approval or knowledge of city-appointed harbor commissioners, Rajan Ahuja and Gabe Guerra. they later declared to the city council.
The port and city’s proposed facilities would be the largest of their kind and size in Texas.
What permits are required?
Any entity wishing to establish a seawater desalination facility must obtain two permits per location from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: a water rights permit and a water quality permit.
Water rights permits allow a certain amount of water to be taken from a source so that it can be treated. As proposed locally, the city and the port seek to draw sea water from the bay, the channel or the open sea in the gulf.
Water treatment creates, in part, a brine by-product, a salt concentration that is considered waste water. Water quality permits allow certain quantities of wastewater to be discharged at specific locations, such as certain points in the shipping channel.
The permitting process can take years, from concept and technical study to public comment and, finally, state approval.
The city and the port have each proposed two locations for seawater desalination facilities. In addition, a private entity already has the necessary permits to establish a facility. Here is a breakdown of all permits that are in progress and have already been issued.
The harbor island of Port Aransas
The Port of Corpus Christi is seeking a water quality permit that would allow the port to establish a 50 million gallon per day seawater desalination plant on Harbor Island. Of all the local permit applications, this proposal, first filed in August 2018, is the furthest along in the process.
Water quality permit: On September 7, TCEQ commissioners considered granting the water quality permit after hearing final arguments from the port attorney and legal counsel for the Port Aransas Conservancy, a local nonprofit environmentalist group opposing to the proposed installation.
TCEQ Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone their vote and reconsider the advisability of granting the permit at their meeting on September 22.
Water Rights Permit: The port has yet to apply for water rights in association with its Harbor Island proposal, according to TCEQ records. A port spokesperson did not respond to questions seeking information on when the port plans to file an application last week.
The port is also seeking permits to establish a 30 million gallon per day facility near a San Patricio County stretch of the La Quinta Canal.
Water quality: According to a TCEQ spokesperson, the port’s La Quinta Canal water quality permit is in the technical review phase. Once the technical review is complete, draft permits will be developed for public review.
Water rights: In July, after hearing feedback from residents, TCEQ commissioners referred the Port’s La Quinta Canal water rights proposal for a contested hearing before state administrative judges at the Office of Administrative Hearings of the state.
The port applied in September 2019 and the proposal was declared administratively complete in May 2020. The comment period and request for hearing period for the application closed in March 2021 but was reopened by the regulator of the State because of a “substantial public interest” for this candidacy.
The city is looking to establish a seawater desalination facility near the inner harbor of the Corpus Christi Ship Channel. The facility, which would be built in the hollowed-out neighborhoods of Hillcrest and Washington-Coles, would have a capacity of 10 to 30 million gallons of drinking water per day.
Water quality: According to a TCEQ spokesperson, the water quality permit for the city’s inner port is in the technical review phase. Once the technical review is completed, the draft permit will be prepared for public review.
Water rights: TCEQ received the City’s Inner Harbor Water Rights Application in January 2020, and it was declared administratively complete in February 2020. A technical review of the application has been completed and a published notice has been provided to the fall 2020.
Due to “significant public interest”, TCEQ held a public meeting in March 2021. TCEQ staff are working to prepare responses to all public comments and hearing requests.
The next step will be to put the request on the agenda of the TCEQ commission, which is expected to take place in early fall 2022, according to a TCEQ spokesperson.
The city is looking to build a facility with a capacity of between 20 and 40 million gallons per day in San Patricio County on the La Quinta Canal.
Water quality: According to a TCEQ spokesperson, the city’s La Quinta Canal water quality permit is in the technical review phase. Once the technical review is completed, the draft permit will be prepared for public review.
Water rights: TCEQ received the City’s La Quinta Channel Water Rights Application in January 2020, and it was declared administratively complete in May 2020. A technical review of the application has been completed and a published notice has been provided to the spring 2021.
Due to “significant public interest”, TCEQ held a public meeting in November 2021. TCEQ staff are working to prepare responses to all public comments and hearing requests. The next step will be to put the application on the agenda of a TCEQ commission.
Corpus Christi Polymers
A private entity, Corpus Christi Polymers, already has the necessary permits to establish a seawater desalination facility. It will likely be the first in the Corpus Christi area to set one up.
Former plastics company M&G USA nearly completed construction of a seawater desalination facility in the Inner Harbor before filing for bankruptcy in October 2017. The project was later purchased by joint venture Corpus Christi Polymers .
In July, the company announced it would resume construction and plans to commission the facility in early 2025.
Sources: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, City of Corpus Christi, Port of Corpus Christi Authority