Texas Eyes Marine Desalination, Oilfield Water Reuse to Sustain Rapid Growth

Texas legislators are poised to recommend designating billions of dollars in public funds for controversial water purification technologies, including marine desalination and oilfield wastewater treatment, to meet the growing demand for water across the drought-stricken state.

The Texas Senate has passed  Senate Bill 28, introduced by State Sen. Charles Perry, an influential Republican from dry, dusty West Texas. The bill would create a state fund mandated to develop seven million acre-feet—almost 2.3 trillion gallons—per year of new water supplies in the next decade. 

The treatment and reuse of “produced” water from oil and gas drilling, and large-scale seawater desalination plants are at the top of the list—strategies that come with a hefty price tag and numerous environmental risks.The funds could also be used to buy water from other states, most likely Louisiana, and for projects to prevent water main failures.

Despite the environmental and fiscal costs, proponents say Texas needs to move forward on new water sources to augment dwindling surface and groundwater supplies. But others worry the state’s scientific standards aren’t keeping up in the haste to add to the state’s water portfolio.

The legislation passed the Senate on April 3 and has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, where it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. If passed, Texans would vote this fall on a constitutional amendment to create the new water fund under the Texas Water Development Board. The amendment is required to bypass legislative spending caps. The size of the fund is still unknown but likely to be in the billions of dollars.

“The best thing we can do is better manage the water we have today. But that alone isn’t going to get us there,” said Carlos Rubinstein, a water expert at the consulting firm RSAH2O and former chairman of the Texas Water Development Board.

A State Beset by Severe Drought

Strains to the water supply are being felt across Texas, which is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, gaining nine million residents since 2000.

Small towns like Magnolia, northwest of Houston, are feeling the crunch. Between 2010 and 2020, Magnolia’s population nearly doubled, to over 2,300 people. Montgomery County, where Magnolia is located, was one of the top ten counties gaining population nationwide between 2021 and 2022.

That October, Magnolia implemented stage 2 water restrictions, which include designated days for watering lawns, prohibitions on watering down pavement and restricted hours for filling swimming pools. But it wasn’t enough, and on December 16, the city enacted a moratorium on new construction to buy time to catch up. 

The construction moratorium was renewed on April 11 for another 120 days.

Across Texas, drought is taxing reservoirs and rivers and groundwater aquifers are being pumped faster than they can recharge. Currently, more than half the state is in drought, according to NOAA. A 2021 report from the state climatologist at Texas A&M University projected greater precipitation variability in Texas as the climate continues to change, which could cause more intense droughts.

A hundred miles north of Austin, the population of Waco is booming. Meanwhile, drought has depleted the city’s sole source of drinking water, Lake Waco, which is currently only 57 percent full. The city has been in stage 2 drought restrictions since last summer.

“This spring we’re looking at a little bit more normal rainfall,” said city spokesperson Jessica Emmett Sellers. “But because of the huge deficit that we’re in, we don’t anticipate getting out of the drought with normal spring rain.”

The drought restrictions limit how frequently residents can water their lawns, which has caused frustration among both new and longtime residents. “We want our economy to grow. We want people to move here,” Emmett Sellers said. “But putting that strain on our resources has been a bit of a balancing act.”

To expand its water supply beyond the lake, Waco is considering treating wastewater for reuse, a process known as reclamation or purple pipe. The treated water is typically used for landscaping, irrigation or industrial processes. 

In between Austin and San Antonio, the 45,000-person city of Kyle is waiting for a pipeline to go online that will pump water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, a joint effort with nearby cities. City staff have also worked with home builders to plan subdivisions that will use water more efficiently—by routing water lines through cul-de-sacs, for example, instead of building lines that dead-end.

“Back in the day people weren’t concerned about water like they are now,” said director of public works Harper Wilder. “I think now the majority of people really understand how valuable water is.”

The Texas Water Development Board projects that the current water supply will be inadequate to satiate the state’s growing population. The state agency expects that, based on 2020 water demand, if water supplies are not expanded and an extreme drought, known as a drought of record, hits Texas, the state would face a shortage of 3.1 million acre-feet of water per year. By 2070, the shortage would multiply to 6.9-million-acre feet per year. An acre-foot of water—enough to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot—is about 326,000 gallons of water.

Rubinstein welcomed legislation this year that would authorize water planning districts to account for even more severe dry spells than the drought of record, which for Texas was in the 1950s. 

“Without getting into what’s causing climate change, we know that we have had droughts in our history that were worse than the 1950s drought,” he said. “I think Texans will be very well served the sooner we recognize that.”

Senate Capitalizes on Renewed Interest in Water

Texas entered its bi-annual legislative session this year with a record-setting $32.7 billion budget surplus. Jeremy Mazur, senior policy advisor at Texas 2036, a nonpartisan think tank focused on growth and development, said the funding opportunities available for water infrastructure this session shouldn’t be passed up. 

“We have a historic unprecedented budget surplus opportunity,” Mazur said. “At the end of the day, we will have more physical water supplies to serve a growing, thirsty state.”

Existing state plans rely heavily on building reservoirs to expand the water supply. However, this is a notoriously slow and controversial process. Planned reservoirs in North Texas are currently sparking significant opposition. SB28 instead focuses on new water sources that are largely unproven in Texas. 

The exact amount of the new water fund is still unclear. The proposed budget in the state Senate includes $1 billion for the “Texas Water Fund” and in a podcast Sen. Perry said $3 billion for the fund is “the ask” in the House. The exact amount will be hammered out before the end of the legislative session on May 29. 

The bill’s inclusion of water conservation measures and funding to repair old water mains drew widespread praise. But other aspects of the bill are attracting scrutiny.

While legislators wonder where to come up with more water for Texas, oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin have another problem on their hands: the injection wells where they dispose of toxic produced water that, when injected deep underground, causes frequent earthquakes across the region.

The industry is scrambling to find alternative uses for the vast amounts of produced water generated in the Permian Basin, which a recent report estimated at 3.9 billion barrels a year in 2019. More oil and gas companies are reusing wastewater from their operations, but injection is still the cheapest and most common disposal method. Reusing produced water requires treating its constituent elements, which can include salts, organic and inorganic compounds, naturally-occurring radioactive material, and chemical additives. 

In the last legislative session, Senator Perry passed a bill that mandated the Texas Produced Water Consortium to study the issue. The consortium delivered its report in December last year. 

Even as SB28 bets on produced water as a viable water source, Texas has not initiated pilot projects to study the reuse of treated produced water. The consortium has recommended pilot projects on reuse for irrigation on cotton or edible crops or on native rangeland. A separate bill in the legislature this session would advance pilot projects.

“The problem with beneficial reuse is that, whether you’re in Texas or New Mexico, we really don’t have robust regulations,” said Zacariah Hildenbrand, a biochemist at the University of Texas, El Paso. “There is a cycle where everybody wants to support greater beneficial reuse, but we don’t have the standards. And in order to get the standards, we need to do science.”

Hildenbrand is testing produced water from different sources to characterize metals, hydrocarbons, bacteria and toxicology and is confident the water can be treated to reach drinking water standards. He will make his findings available to the consortium. 

But environmentalists say legislators are getting ahead of themselves with SB28.

“We’re putting the cart before the horse here,” said Alex Ortiz, water resources specialist at the Lone Star Sierra Club. “We’re trying to take an end result and work backwards. And I’m not sure that’s a responsible way to think about water planning.”

The total amount of produced water available for beneficial reuse appears to pale in comparison to the bill’s objective of developing seven million acre feet of new water supply a year. 

The consortium report estimated that 256,000 acre feet a year of excess produced water—about 83.4 billion gallons—will be available for beneficial reuse over a 38-year timeframe. The report explains that because of the high salinity of Permian Basin produced water, only a fraction of the overall volume can be treated and reused. 

There are currently no facilities treating produced water in the Permian Basin for reuse. Texas may look to California as an example, where Kern County blends fresh water with treated produced water for irrigation. California only allows wastewater from conventional drilling, not fracking, to be used for irrigation. But reporting by Inside Climate News has found there is little evidence to support California’s claims the practice is safe.

“I do think it’s in the state’s best interest to support more research on this and to support this paradigm,” Hildenbrand said. “We have the technologies to produce fresh water from oilfield waste. So we just need to have more of a regulatory framework to support it.”

Senator Perry’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

SB28 also highlights desalination as a new water source for Texas. The state currently has 53 municipal desalination facilities that treat brackish or freshwater but no seawater desalination plants. The EPA and the state continue to spar over the permitting process for the Port of Corpus Christi to build a large-scale desalination plant on Harbor Island. Several other permits for marine desalination facilities are pending.

Seawater desalination faces high costs, complex permitting processes and environmental concerns.

“Of the new water supply strategies, desalination is probably the least risky compared to produced water or importing water from another state,” Ortiz of the Sierra Club said. “But my big concern with desalination has been the complete lack of sufficient protections for our bay and estuary systems in Texas.”

Ortiz said state regulators should adopt numerical standards for discharges from marine desalination plants to ensure they do not harm coastal ecosystems.

“If TCEQ doesn’t have the framework to protect coastal communities, that’s a huge problem,” Ortiz said. “Not just for wildlife populations, but for communities that depend on them for tourism and recreation-based economies.”

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The bill does not detail where Texas would buy water, but in the past, private interests have tried to purchase water from neighboring Louisiana. A  private sector scheme to buy water from Louisiana’s Sabine River Authority was eventually struck down in 2012. 

“It is absolutely worth exploring,” said Rubinstein. “Water is much more valued the further west you get and it is much more plentiful the further east you get.”

As the ambitious water bill continues to move through the Texas Statehouse, water advocates agree the attention is long overdue. 

“Every time we have a significant drought we learn from it. There is a flurry of activity at the legislature,” Rubinstein said. “And as soon as it rains, we forget that water remains a critical need.”

But questions linger whether the strategies Texas adopts will be fiscally and environmentally sustainable for generations of Texans to come.

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