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Water For Texas 2012 - Cost of Water, Part II

Milan J. Michalec BCC Contributor

(Author's note: Everyone will have a share in Texas's water bill. Part two of this series begins an explanation of how big it really is.)

In the September 2012 report "Your Money and Local Debt," Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs recorded the per capita debt in 2011 - the amount of public debt owed by each man, woman and child in Texas.
The state share is $1,577, another $7,507is owed to pay for the daily operations and to service the existing debt of local government. The federal portion is $47,383.
If you're still counting, the total per capita debt for local, state and federal government is currently just over $56,000.
Though the total state debt exceeds $40 billion, the debt of local government is far greater - $192.7 billion. Interestingly, less than $3 billion of state dollars are owed to fund water infrastructure projects.
On the local level, water districts and authorities, which provide water and services such as conservation, flood control of wastewater treatment account for $30.3 billion of what is owed.
Water is generally expected flow downhill, but it can be made to flow the other way - if you can afford to pay for it and as history shows, it won't get any cheaper.
The estimated cost to implement major supply water projects in the 1997 State Water Plan through the year 2050 was $4.7 billion. The 2002 plan estimated that $17.9 would be required and by the time the 2007 plan was published this cost had risen to $31 billion.
With this reality in mind, and the current state of local, state and national economies, consider this assessment by Sir Winston Churchill as the leaders of England struggled to pay for the defense of their country in WWII: "Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we must begin to think."
One such thought is desalination. Freshwater could certainly come from brackish groundwater. It is a source that could ultimately provide up 2 percent of future water supplies in Texas.
However, the cost of building one such facility for San Antonio Water System (SAWS) is $145 million. By 2016, up to 10 million gallons a day is expected to be produced.
As reported by the San Antonio Express News, when the cost of the water treatment and the energy required to pump it uphill to San Antonio are factored in, this water is about five times more expensive than the water that is pumped from the Edwards Aquifer.
Full-scale desalination of seawater is described in several approved strategies in the 2012 State Water Plan. Ultimately this strategy could add up to another one percent of new water supply.
One of these projects is the Region L San Antonio Water System Seawater Desalination Project. If funded it could bring significant quantities of freshwater from a seemingly unlimited source - the Gulf of Mexico.
The entire system of intake, filters, pumps, tanks and 126 miles of pipeline to move the freshwater from Seadrift to San Antonio is estimated to cost nearly $1 billion - the capital investment cost in 2008 dollars exceeds $873 million. The estimated start-up decade is 2060.
Though the investment in brackish or seawater may sound prudent, the real promise is realistically decades away - if research can cut the cost that will be required to produce about a 3 percent gain in new water supplies from desalinated water.
This is made clear on the website of Sandia National Laboratories where discussion with the US Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation concludes that desalination is not a silver bullet, remarking that the cost to build and operate desalination current technologies is its Achilles Heel.
Alternatives to expensive, long term, large-scale water projects abound. First and foremost is water conservation, a strategy that is misunderstood and underutilized, but one that may provide immediate relief until other water management strategies can be implemented.

(Michalec is a director of the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District in Kendall County.)