Thursday, June 16, 2005

Water Supply Options

The studies commissioned on our long-term water options are finally coming in. I have the latest Stephens interim report on Hickory Underground water and the Guyton report on Brackish water. I have had my doubts on the Hickory option for some time, but I did not choose to jump in until good data was available.

We have known for a long time there was a problem with naturally occuring radioactive decay products far exceeding federal and state limits in the Hickory field. I want to stress here, I am personally not nearly as nuclear-phobic as the country as a whole. If I lived there, I would cheerfully drink well water with 20 to 40 picocuries per liter. There is at least one very thorough study showing zero health problems at this level.

That said, we live in a country where 200,000 people fled screaming into the night after the Three Mile Island incident, a "disaster" which created a maximum civilian exposure lower than that one encounters naturally by moving from sea level to Denver. We haven't evacuated Denver yet, but I'm not sure the EPA wouldn't, given its druthers. As Shakespeare pointed out 450 years ago, "the law and reason keep little company these days."

The current standard is 5 PCL, and the Stephens report gives us several options to achieve this level. Diluting the tainted water with other water is far the cheapest, but therein lies a host of problems. To save the cost of building a separate 70 mile pipeline at at least a million dollars a mile, we could connect to the CRMWD Ivie pipeline and simultaneously dilute and ship the Hickory water. There is one tiny problem, any customer on the pipeline has unilateral veto power over introducing water from any other source. I am more than skeptical, I will wager large sums of money Midland is not going to say, "Sure, go right ahead and add some radioactivity to our water, our voters won't mind a bit."

There is also the problem of how much Hickory water we can take in a given year. We have been paying for 1,500 acre/ft a year we have yet to use, and those rights are theoretically bankable. A clause in that contract states our rights cannot be limited except in the event of a drought. Well, DUH! we aren't likely to want to pay for pumping, mixing, monitoring and treatment if we are sitting here with full lakes. Translation; we can have all the water legally coming to us unless the weather is such that we actually need it.

Throw in the fact that contract be damned, either the feds or the state can shut us off anytime the aquifer level starts to noticeably drop. San Antonio runs into this problem every few years. Never having built resevoir storage, San Antonio frequently has to go to emergency conservation measures anytime area springs start to dry up and threaten some endangered fresh water shrimp.

As I write this, the Supreme Court has just ruled 6 to 3 in support of denying an Austin area Wal-Mart lest it somehow threaten some obscure species of cave crickets. The difficulties of the current 5 PCL limit are bad enough, what happens when EPA decides to move to a 0.5 PCL, ten times as strict? I pose this as a "when" because just that proposal was on the table when Bush came in and put it on hold. Let us suppose the EPA is emboldened by this SCOTUS decision or just cut loose by a new administration that owes the environmental lobby big time. That 0.5PCL could become law overnight, leaving us a $100 million dollar pipeline to NOTHING!

There are parts of the Hickory aquifer with little or no radionucleotides. The question there is whether drawing water in those sections will cause adjoining contaminated water to flow into those wells. According to the study, the answer is "We don't know." For another $350,000, we can run some pump tests and find out.

Considering the uncertain, but all too likely future regulations we face vs the high investment, I have to recommend against any further investment in this option. There are other problems I lack space to go into now, but this could all too easily turn into a high dollar dry hole.

I would not be so quick to abandon this potential source if we were truly against the wall and without options. The Ivie water is nice, we have actually used it almost exclusively of late, but the lake could get low enough to be a reduced supply. Fortunately there is the brackish water option. There is nothing experimental here, desalination has a long history and a steadily declining cost. A recent example was one of our first relief measures to the tsunami disaster, we put several naval vessels with onboard desal capacity to provide all the clean water we could transport to the victims. It is still more expensive than lake water, but not ruinously so. It gets cheaper as we ramp up volume, and salt is an inexpensive by-product to dispose of compared to radioactive waste.

Any oilfield hand can tell you there is lots of it. The consultants do want some test wells to locate the highest yielding fields, but we have punched enough holes in the ground looking for oil and finding brackish water to know for certain we have plenty of supply in our own back yard.

One hint to our city fathers if we go this route: Once we find it, negotiate with the lanowners as good neighbors, do not send people out throwing around terms like "imminent domain" and honking off possible allies. Then maybe it won't take special legslation to keep from paying an arm and a leg for a special watermaster.

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