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2014-08-21

CEO talks desalination projects & ideas with TSCRA members

By Colleen Schreiber Livestock Weekly

ARLINGTON - "When wells run dry, we know the value of water." That quote by Benjamin Franklin is a favorite of Kyle Fraser, CEO of the fledgling Texas Desalination Association.
Fraser was one of the speakers at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association summer board meeting in Arlington. The three watchwords used in water circles today, Fraser told listeners, are conservation, reuse and desalination.
Educating people on conservation is challenging, he acknowledged, especially in urban areas. He was heartened, however, by a recent proposal by the City of Georgetown to require lawns for new builds to use grasses that are dormant during the summer, the most common being buffalo grass.
"It didn't pass, but they did pass an ordinance which said the lawn could only be twice as big as the square footage of the house. Someone is finally getting it," said Fraser. "I think we will see more of that type of thinking, especially in our urban areas."
He noted that the response following the 1950s drought was to build reservoirs. Few new reservoirs have been built since then, even though the state's population has tripled.
Given the state's future projected population, a great deal of thinking out of the box is needed, Fraser said. More reuse is coming, he told listeners.
Communities must also stop thinking about their water coming from a single source, Fraser said. [Communities need] a water portfolio [including] everything from fresh water to brackish water, to reuse and conservation must be used to support future water needs.
The Desalination Assn. started in 2011 as a result primarily of the latest drought. The association has about 150 members ranging in size from large multi-national engineering firms to individuals. There are also 30 to 35 municipality members, most of which are west of I-35. The association doesn't own water, nor is it an end user, though the city members are. The goal of the association, Fraser said, is primarily as a facilitator to make desalination a more viable option.
The Texas Water Development Board estimates that there are about 2.8 billion acre-feet of brackish water in Texas, and very little of it is being used today, Fraser said. That is expected to change, given that Texas' population of 26.7 million is growing by about a thousand people a day. Each person, he said, uses 60 to 100 gallons a day on average.
Israel is known for its desalination work. The country has gone to ocean desalination for nearly 100 percent of its water. "They told us that they don't care if it rains anymore," Fraser said. "It's irrelevant."
Currently there are 100 desalination plants in Texas. All are brackish plants; none are ocean desalination. El Paso has the largest inland brackish desalination plant in the world. Brownsville also has a large facility that currently supplies about a third of Brownsville's drinking water. The other facilities are small and are used for everything from irrigating golf courses to supplying water for a bowling alley in Fort Stockton.
San Antonio is currently building a brackish desalination facility that will be much larger than the El Paso facility. It is expected to come online in the next two years.
During the last legislative session, the Desalination Assn. had three goals they wanted to accomplish. One goal, Fraser said, was to make the process of permitting desalination facilities easier, or at least a little more streamlined. The other two initiatives dealt with financing.
"One of the things we found is that there are a lot of small communities interested in desalination, but first a test well has to be drilled, and test wells are extremely expensive. A lot of communities can't afford it," he explained. "So one of the things we approached the legislature about was ponying up with a matching grant program for small communities. We didn't get that done."
One of the projects the Desalination Assn. intends to bring to the legislature during the next session is a funding proposal for mapping and characterizing the brackish aquifers.
"That way rural communities can make informed choices as to whether or not it makes economic sense to drill into a particular aquifer."
Fraser said he [also] expects a fairly sizable ocean desalination plant somewhere along the coast to be installed over the next two years.
"More than likely it will be dedicated to some petrochemical industry. In Corpus Christi alone there is $22 billion of new industry money coming in - shovel-ready - and all are expected to use massive amounts of water."
During the last legislative session, the association got a commitment out of TCEQ to begin rulemaking on streamlining the desalination permitting process. That process has begun, and the new streamlined permitting process is expected to be completed by March 2015.
Fraser told listeners that the system currently in place for groundwater management is not conducive to making use of brackish water.
"If there is a desire to make extensive use of this resource, then some changes are going to have to be made," he insisted.
"Our thought early on was to come up with some type of methodology for using brackish water that made sense to everyone, was fair to everyone, because we felt if we didn't come up with it the legislature would, and if they did, we probably wouldn't be very happy with it.
"I honestly can't say where these discussions are going. We continue to meet with groundwater guys once a month."
The technology is there to make use of the brackish water, he said, though he acknowledged it will cost. Treatment of brackish water, Fraser said, typically costs $2-4 per thousand gallons while ocean desalination is $3-6 per thousand gallons.
"Energy is the biggest cost driver, and the more mineralized the water, the more power is needed...," he explained.
The "waste" from the desalination process, Fraser said, is considered to be "hazardous waste", even though it's only highly concentrated salty water. The "hazardous" designation thus requires that it be injected into a Class I injection well regulated by TCEQ.
Brownsville discharges their concentrate down into a ship channel so that it goes back out into the ocean.
The Desalination Assn. recently participated in a pilot project whereby the concentrate from the desalination process is used as a feedstock. The water is separated out, as are the various other minerals which are left in a slurry. The pilot project, he said, was so successful that a commercial scale project is underway. The water will be reused and the various other byproducts will be sold on the open market.
"The process increases the efficiency of the desalination facility by about 25 percent," Fraser said.
Some groundwater conservation districts have expressed concern about the amount of freshwater being used by oil companies for the fracking process. The technology for using brackish water for fracking is improving, though. He opined that the use of class II injection wells for the byproducts produced from the fracking process will likely be curtailed at some point in the near future. Already the Desalination Assn. is working with about 10 companies which are trying to perfect technology that will allow them to separate out the products from oil field waste water so the water can be used again by the oil company, thus condensing the volume of waste into an injection well.
Some of the Desalination Assn. engineering members are also looking at projects whereby they build a desalination facility in the middle of one of these large oil and gas fields.
"That's probably three or four years away," he admitted. "The technology is there; it's just that the economics don't quite work yet.
"All water is going to be more expensive," Fraser concluded. "However, we're being very short-sighted if we don't make use of the brackish water in the state."
This article originally appeared in Livestock Weekly's July 24, 2014 issue. It has been edited to fit. For the entire article go to Livestock Weekly's website. Used with permission.