Friday, March 03, 2006

Issues in English: Water

Water has become one of the hot campaign issues, hardly surprising on the edge of the desert. San Angelo has gone through feast and famine so often, it is second nature for us to read rainfall totals and local lake levels the way Wall Street brokers read the stock ticker. Our troubles dealing with the problem have gained national attention, one famous episode being when O. C. Fisher lake “caught fire”, actually a brush fire in the then dry lakebed.

We really have come a long way since then, and it is to our credit that we are studying plans to secure adequate water for growth through at least 2060. The city has commissioned $4.5 million worth of studies of our most likely options. We have only preliminary reports on the city studies, but the final report of the Region F Water Study Group came out in January. This Study Group was created by Texas law and included Will Wilde and Stephen Brown among other locals as voting members.

One thing that became glaringly obvious during last year's water rate hike is that we are living under a new reality that many people are understandably slow to grasp. Conservation measures had resulted in a drop of Water Utility sales from 23,000 acre feet annually to about 12,000. Quite naturally, people became irate when our successful conservation effort resulted in a significant rate hike. One thing most people did not understand was the new situation resulting from the completion of the Ivie Pipeline and our contract with Ivie.

We have a contract to buy 15,000 acre feet annually from the Ivie pipeline. We do get to pump unsold water into O. C. Fisher, but we do get to pay for it. The new reality I referenced is that, at least right now, we are in a surplus position on water regardless of local lake levels, and that unsold inventory of 3,000 acre feet was a contributing factor in the rate hike.

Assuming even modest growth, that circumstance will not last forever and we are wisely looking ahead to expanding our future supplies while we have this unaccustomed luxury, for once acting before a crisis is upon us. For that the city is to be commended. We should be very cautious in the choosing, the options we are looking at range from a low ballpark of $50 million up to $150 million, future operating costs excluded. Once we commit to that kind of money, we won't get a second chance to get it right.

Desalination. The tech is nothing new, modern cruise ships and naval vessels no longer tote fresh water, they desalinate what they need. Seventy years of poking holes drilling for oil, during which process the water was an unavoidable nuisance, leave no doubt there are vast amounts of brackish groundwater west of San Angelo. This “brackish” water is less salty than sea water and part of the cost of desalinating will depend on the salinity of the raw product. Proximity and total supply favor this option. Downside is that the treatment cost will inevitably be higher per gallon at any given time than treating fresh surface or groundwater.

Groundwater has to mean Hickory Aquifer water. The distance would mean a price on pipeline alone of $70 to $100 million, and that just gets us in on the ground floor of a huge regulatory problem due to radium/radon nucleotides present due to decay of feldspar deposits through the region. A totally different regulatory problem arises if our withdrawal of water above recharge rate causes the aquifer level to drop.

An aside here. If I lived in McCulloch County and the EPA weenie came and told me my well had 40 pCi/L, as some do, my personal alarm level would be to yawn and get another glass of water. Two good studies by the State of Texas show zero health effects in people who have ingested this water all their lives. Unfortunately, these studies and my opinion mean exactly squat to the EPA or to Texas Environmental Quality Commission, which has adopted EPA rules by reference. They have a current allowable level of 5pCi/L, with a proposal on the table to reduce that by a factor of ten.

Not to burden this article with too much data, much more detail and my idea of a direction for regional water solutions is at this link. San Angelo does have a sufficiently large treatment plant with enough other water to blend down to current EPA standards. Of the available long-term options, Hickory has the highest price tag, the smallest gross water volume available, and the potential that nuclear-phobic regulators will change the rules and leave us with a horribly expensive “dry hole”. The Region F Study recommendation to smaller districts now using Hickory water, including Eden, is “bottled water” and that will require an EPA waiver. 'Nuff said on that option. The Region F Study is here. with pages 111-132 being the Hickory section.

Conservation is great, but limited. We are already closer than most of Texas to the state goal of 140 gal. per person per day. I'm all for brush control, chasing oil wells all over the country, I see big swaths of land cleared and being cleared. We may one day get back to what grandparents described as country where mesquite was much thinner, salt cedar a rarity, and the streams ran year round.

Finally, remember that any option will cost a sum of money visible from outer space. The new supply will however, be secondary, probably tertiary, as a back-up to cheaper, existing Ivie and local surface water. Water rates will likely increase as growth demands greater use of the new supply, by which time we will be glad we have it. In that regard especially, I have to favor a desalination option. It is more amenable to being scalable according to need. For something closer to a $50 million front end, we can have the initial wells and pipeline, and be able to add new supply wells and treatment units if and as expanding need requires them.

Hickory would require the bulk of the investment up front in pipeline cost before we get any water, with a much greater chance of becoming a limited, even non-existent source just as we need it worst, since its current users will most likely be needing more of it themselves, be that need growth or drought driven. There are no current users of Whitehorse brackish water.

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