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Water Reuse and Desalination Draw Wide Attention At Urban Water Council Regional Seminar

By Cynthia Zhao
April 12, 2004


The Urban Water Council convened a Regional Seminar on Public-Private Partnerships in Sugar Land (TX), March 25-26. Among a series of case studies, water conservation and saltwater desalination projects especially drew much attention and interest. Due to increasing demand, fresh clean water is becoming more difficult to deliver to cities with rapidly expanding populations and economies. Drought and groundwater contamination often threaten existing supplies, reducing availability and increasing prices. Cities and states must find more innovative ways to deal with these problems. Two common approaches can be used to resolve water supply problems. One is to reduce the amount of water use through conservation efforts, the other is to increase available water supplies through alternative resources such as reuse and saltwater desalination.

Water Rights and Reuse in Texas

Water reuse, also referred to as water reclamation and water recycling, is a common practice for municipalities and industries to augment their water supplies. However, according to Attorney Carolyn Ahrens of Booth, Ahrens & Werkenthin, P.C., one issue on the horizon regarding water reuse rights regulations involves the current Texas law for water reuse that leaves downstream water users- needs and ecological requirements unaddressed. Ahrens explained that the law regulates water reuse rights by defining the methods of direct use prior to discharge to a watercourse and indirect reuse that "employs the bed and banks of state watercourses for transport or mixing in on-channel storage reservoirs," which must obtain authorization from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) through a "bed and banks" permit. "Considering that both methods have the same impact on downstream water rights interests," Ahrens continued, "limiting indirect reuse will result in foregoing reuse by water supply managers to avoid incurring unnecessary transportation expenses," which will diminish the amount of water available downstream. Based on the principle that Ahrens suggested, "a valid water'supply management strategy would include certainty of supply and maximum flexibility to utilities to manage those certain supplies;" therefore, changes should be considered and made for the Texas water reuse law. Ahrens called on major water supply stakeholders to work together to find appropriate solutions. Copies of written materials on water rights for reuse in Texas are available from Ahrens at Carolyn@baw.com.

Freeport Desalination Project

In addition to water reuse, seawater desalination also shows promise in becoming a potential water supply in response to future water shortages. Early in April of 2002, former Governor Rick Perry directed the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to develop recommendations for seawater desalination demonstration projects. In September 2003, TWDB selected and funded three sites in Texas to conduct desalination feasibility studies, after reviewing various proposals.

One of the selected proposals included a public-private partnership in Freeport. Andrew Shea, Vice President of Project Development for Poseidon Resources and Susan Morgan, CPA and Lower Basin Manager of the Brazos River Authority (BRA) described this seawater desalination public-private partnership project. In their partnership, BRA is responsible for the original plan, and water transport and delivery to municipal and industrial users, while Poseidon's role is to do the project evaluation, plant development, permitting and assessment. "The partnership makes it possible for us to do our best and for Poseidon to their best," according to Morgan. Poseidon has proposed $125 million in initial private investment to construct a pilot desalination plant. The plant will use existing Gulf of Mexico water intake and discharge infrastructure on the Brazos River through BRA's pipeline to end-user retail distribution system. The planned reverse osmosis membrane technology should provide and deliver 25 million gallons of water per day (MGD), and potential expansion could reach 100 MGD. The project planning study is due in January of 2005, and project construction will begin soon thereafter. At this time, the TWDB considers the Freeport project the most feasible among the three sites on which to begin permitting and design activities. More information on this project is available from Andrew Shea at ashea@poseidon1.com.

retail distribution system. The planned reverse osmosis membrane technology should provide and deliver 25 million gallons of water per day (MGD), and potential expansion could reach 100 MGD. The project planning study is due in January of 2005, and project construction will begin soon thereafter. At this time, the TWDB considers the Freeport project the most feasible among the three sites on which to begin permitting and design activities. More information on this project is available from Andrew Shea at ashea@poseidon1.com.

Tampa Bay Desalination Project

Tampa Bay Water (TBA) is a wholesale water provider supplying drinking water to almost 2 million people in the Tampa_St. Petersburg region, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US. As required by the Florida State Legislature, to reduce groundwater extraction and tap new drinking water supplies to meet the region's future water needs, TBA developed a Master Water Plan aiming to reduce groundwater pumping from 190 MGD to 90 MGD over seven years. To mitigate the reduced groundwater supply, TBA plans to build several reservoirs to store storm water, construct additional surface water treatment plants, and develop seawater desalination plants.

Neil Callahan, Director of Owner's Advisory Services for R.W. Beck described how his company worked with TBA, providing an advisory role in project management, engineering, procurement and the construction contract for the reservoirs and treatment plants. Callahan suggested several significant elements for an efficient and successful Design/Build/Operate (DBO) Project for cities and public utility owners to consider, including "cost comparison benchmarking; influent water quality; design review; pilot testing; testing water disposal; start-up and turnover processes; and mandatory run and acceptance testing."

Among the components of the Master Water Plan, seawater desalination has proved to be an important success, according to Callahan. The desalination plant is designed to produce 25 MGD of fresh water and potential expansion could reach 35 MGD, about 10 percent of the region's overall water supply. More information is available from Neil Callahan at ncallahan@rwbeck.com.