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Barton Springs district to try again for desalinization project grant

Thursday, June 10, 2010 by Mark Richardson

Hoping to secure an additional source of water for a growing population in Central Texas, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is looking for grant funds to study if a desalinization plant could make water from an underwater saline zone safe for drinking.


The district, along with Texas State University and Texas Disposal Systems, proposed earlier this year to build an experimental desalinization plant with a grant from the Texas Water Development Board. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 2, 2010) However, that bid failed.


The district’s board of directors is scheduled to vote tonight on applying for another grant, this time from the federal government.


“We just heard recently that the state was interested in the project but that we weren’t awarded the grant,” said John Dupnik, senior regulatory compliance specialist with the district. “In the meantime, we’re looking at some new funding through the Bureau of Reclamation. We are also looking at some other options that the state Water Development Board suggested we consider.”


The district and its partners are seeking up to $600,000 to build an experimental plant that would utilize new technologies to make fresh water from the aquifer’s Saline Zone. Portions of the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer, the large underground river the district manages, have sections that contain large volumes of saline or brackish water. Most of those areas are east of I-35.


Until recently, according to Dupnik, there was very little interest in the parts of the aquifer that contain salt water.


“Typically, they (salt water deposits) have been considered unusable, mainly because there was a better source – fresh water – that was available,” he said. “With the current water scene, it’s getting to the point where there’s no such thing as bad water. Everything is on the table; everything is being considered.”


Dupnik said that the driving factor behind studying the desalinization project is the area’s population, which is projected to double by the year 2030.


“There’s a lot of water over there,” he said. “We’d be remiss if we didn’t consider all the sources.”


Dupnik said the aquifer district would use the grant funds to study the quality of the saline and what it would cost to turn that saline into fresh water.


“Another important thing for us to study is that if we start pumping pretty heavily on that side of the aquifer on that saline-fresh water interface, would that in any way impact the fresh water supplies?” he said. “That’s a key question that we need to answer.”  


The experimental desalinization plant could produce between 500,000 and 1 million gallons of fresh water per day. A larger, permanent facility could produce up to 10 million gallons per day, a significant increase in the region’s fresh water supply.


A test facility would also provide an opportunity to test new technologies designed to more efficiently dispose of the brine produced by the desalinization process. The most common process, reverse osmosis, produces between 20 and 30 percent brine – water completely saturated with salt that is unusable. However, new technologies exist that produce only about 4 percent brine and would likely be used in a test plant.


Dupnik said if the federal grant is not approved, the district may begin funding parts of the study on its own.

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