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Port Aransas Conservancy fighting to block Port of Corpus Christi desalination plant

Posted at 4:31 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 11:21:23-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Watch the TCEQ meeting here:

You can listen to the May 19 meeting, dialing in by phone toll-free at 415-655-0052 access code 809-814-013.

ORIGINAL STORY: Corpus Christi is looking for a new water source, but there are some who believe they’re looking in the wrong location.

The Port of Corpus Christi Authority (POCCA) has applied for two permits for desalination facilities, including one on Harbor Island.

Desalination using reverse osmosis would take seawater and convert it to drinkable water, or water that could be used for industrial purposes. The result of that process also creates wastewater, a mixture of brine and chemicals.

DESAL-FLOWCHART.PNG

While the intake of seawater would occur offshore, the permit states the proposed location for discharge of the wastewater would be the Corpus Christi Channel, in-between Harbor Island and Roberts Point Park.

“The water budget for Texas, with the growth of Texas, is under extreme strain," said James King. "We rely on surface water up here with the growth of this area, with industrial growth of this area. It has to be addressed. We want waters in these rivers to get into the bays to help the estuaries. If they start taking more water out of these rivers we’re going to kill our bay systems. So we’ve got to come up with creative ideas like 'desal.’”

King leads the group, Port Aransas Conservancy. They are fighting against the Port’s plans on Harbor Island.

In February, the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings recommended denying the water quality permit for the facility.

“We feel like we have an excellent administrative record that we were able to put together in the contested case," said King. "The facts are the facts. You can’t go around those. It’s the wrong place.”

A University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute study, on the proposed facility, was released in March.

Several methodologies were used in the study, including utilizing technical reports that conduct permitting and regulate public health, peer-reviewed literature and the permit submitted by the POCCA.

According to the study, there are several endangered and threatened species of animals that live in habitats around the proposed project. Of these, five would be impacted in a meaningful way, according to the study.

Those five include the Green sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, Piping Plover, Whooping Crane and Reddish Egret

“We’re really kind of extra cautious when it comes to those threatened and endangered organisms because we worry about effects of the population level," Kristin Nielsen said, author of the UTMSI study. "But when it comes to an organism there’s so few that losing one of the birds might constitute a significant part of the population. Then you have to be much more conservative about your risk estimates.”

Because of the location and the low flow of water in the bay, this could cause harm to the entire marine ecosystem, according to the study. It also recommends against the facility because of the permit’s high uncertainty of risks and the uncertainty around the ecotoxicological harm that could be done.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) permit lists broad categories of chemicals that need to be added to the process.

“They’re already under a lot of stress," said Nielsen, assistant professor at UTMSI. "And so when you start adding the soup of chemicals into the mix and it’s just long-term chronic exposure it can really take a toll over time. And having those other stressors present like high temperatures, not enough oxygen in the water, high salinity, can actually cause—what you’ll end up seeing is that the effects threshold where you would normally see toxicity, you start seeing effects at a much lower concentration than you would have originally expected because the organism’s already so stressed.”

Nielsen said other potential risks of marine life ingesting chemicals over time could be health effects from direct toxicity in food, the economic impact on the fishing industry, and the overall general wellness of a community.

King stands against all industrialization on Harbor Island.

“So we’ve been advocating, if you’re going to take the… intake offshore, why not do the discharge offshore?” King asked. "And so, I think that’s probably the solution.”

Although against the industrialization of the island, he’s all for development that coincides with the tourist economy of Port Aransas. He said with the hub of the city right across the channel, facilities like the ones proposed don’t belong. He said it’s a popular fishing spot, park, and place to gather.

“So we’ve been promoting the idea of looking at alternative uses. Things like restaurants and shops and things that would fit into, marina, and things like that, would fit into what we’re doing, what the economy is based here in Port Aransas,” King said.

King said the Port of Corpus Christi should give the City of Port Aransas the rights to build on the island. If that isn’t possible, he says the POCCA should communicate with the city and residents about what they want, developing plans they can get behind.

"They’ll be built and designed under the guidelines or the ordinances of the City of Port Aransas," he said. "Lighting ordinances, sound ordinances, zoning. All the things that any other builder would do here, of getting permits to construct commercial facilities over there.”

If a desalination facility is approved, the UT study suggests an in-depth environmental study for the construction and operation.

"If they do build it here, they have to use technology that protects the really sensitive flow of the larvae and the fish that move from the gulf into the bays," said King. "This is a critical spot right here. The scientists call it an ecological hot spot. And so, wrong place to put this brine.”

The Port of Corpus Christi responded to this study with a statement.

“The Port of Corpus Christi was not consulted by UTMSI on this research, nor invited to participate in the study. We were certainly caught off guard by the University of Texas, a State agency, weighing in on another State Agency’s project, without consultation or collaboration of the sponsor agency. Further, we have not fully examined the study to determine its methodologies and assumptions. Once we have an academic peer review of the research to affirm its merits, we will be in a better position to determine if modifications to the seawater desalination discharge configuration are warranted,” said a spokesperson for the Port of Corpus Christi.

On May 19, TCEQ Commissioners will decide on the permit. They can uphold the SOAH recommendation. They can go against it and approve the permit. Or they can remand it and send the permit back to POCCA for modifications.

According to the Texas Water Development Board, Texas does not yet have any seawater desalination plants. Down the channel, residents of Ingleside are fighting a similar battle with the Port of Corpus Christi Authority and the City of Corpus Christi. Another desalination plant was proposed around La Quinta Channel. Permits have been filed for a desalination plant on the inner harbor.
Desal Seawater by Ryan Garza on Scribd

The United States does have functioning seawater desalination plants in California and Florida, to name a few places. Nielsen said the difference is location.

“The main difference is the sites where these facilities discharge is pretty much like an open water," she said. "It’s not an enclosed bay scenario. And those places also have high rates of water exchange and mixing with the open ocean. So, essentially what you have is it’s diffused faster. It has less of an opportunity to linger and just lead to accumulation of contaminants and those type of things.”