Gulf of Mexico
Credit: The Texas Tribune

TX - Corpus Christi sold its water to Exxon, gambling on desalination. So far, it is losing the bet.

Concerns over ecological damage to Corpus Christi Bay have delayed plans to convert sea water to drinking water for years in this booming Gulf Coast city.‍

THE TEXAS TRIBUNE, Inside Climate News -- Five years ago, when ExxonMobil came calling, city officials eagerly signed over a large portion of their water supply so the oil giant could build a $10 billion plant to make plastics out of methane gas.

A year later, they did the same for Steel Dynamics to build a rolled-steel factory.

Never mind that Corpus Christi, a mid-sized city on the semi-arid South Texas coast, had just raced through its 50-year water plan 13 years ahead of schedule. Planners believed they had a solution: large-scale seawater desalination.

According to the plan in 2019, the state’s first plant needed to be running by early 2023 to safely meet industrial water demands that were scheduled to come online. But Corpus Christi never got it done.

That hasn’t stopped the city and its port authority from pursuing plans to develop a next-generation industrial sector around Corpus Christi Bay and make this region a rival to Houston, home to the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, 200 miles up the Gulf Coast.

As efforts to cut carbon emissions fall far behind the timetables set during decades of global accords, Corpus Christi is building out a sector to sell oil and gas from Texas shale fields on global markets for decades to come.

All that’s missing is freshwater. Now the commitments city officials made over the past five years are coming due. Exxon’s plastic plant started operations this year and will eventually consume 25 million gallons per day, even as the region’s latest water plan foresees demand exceeding supplies in this decade.

This summer, severe drought and heat pushed Corpus Christi into water use restrictions. Yet desalination plans remained years away from completion, hung up on questions from state and federal environmental regulators — the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — over the ecological consequences of dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of salty brine per day into Corpus Christi Bay.

“I would love nothing more than to get right in front of their faces — the state, TCEQ, EPA, all of those agencies — and say, ‘Hey people! Do you realize that we need this permit now? We provide water for 500,000 people,” Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo told the city council in July, answering complaints over years of delays. “This is of urgency. We have to have this permit.”

Today the pursuit of desalination has become an increasingly desperate race to meet incoming demands. The number of plants proposed for Corpus Christi Bay has grown to five — two for the City of Corpus Christi, two for the Port of Corpus Christi and one for a private polymer manufacturer.

Last month, the TCEQ issued its first wastewater discharge permit to a plant proposed by the port, despite a challenge from the EPA signaling what could be a long legal fight ahead.

Regulators and scientists worry that each plant’s discharge of tens of millions of gallons of hyper-salty wastewater per day could disrupt reproductive cycles for a host of aquatic species, which rely on the half-salty waters of the coastal bays for their larvae to mature.

All together, environmentalists say, the five plants’ discharge, coupled with the water pollution and ocean freighter traffic from the industrial boom they would unleash, may constitute a near-fatal blow for life in the bay, whose once-teeming ecosystems have nursed coastal communities since long before Corpus Christi existed.

While plant developers have produced studies showing their discharge won’t affect ambient salinity or wildlife, Paul Montagna, an endowed chair at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t see how you can add brine to a salty system and not increase the salinity. I just don’t understand how that could happen,” he said from his corner office at the university, with two-story windows looking out to the bay. “I’ve read the engineering studies, and I just don’t get it.”

Montagna agrees that Corpus Christi needs desalination, but he wants the brine piped one or two miles offshore and released into the open Gulf instead of the shallow, almost stagnant bay. The idea is supported by scientists but dismissed by developers as too expensive.

Other activists hope to block desalination altogether with an aim to hold up the buildout that has unfolded here in recent years, fueled by a spate of new pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford Shale since 2010 and by Congress’ lifting of the oil export ban in 2015, which have made Corpus Christi the nation’s top port for crude exports. One piece remains for the growth to continue.

“That’s the chokehold,” said Isabel Araiza, a professor of social work at Del Mar College and founder of a group called For the Greater Good. “In order to bring heavy industry in they’re going to need water.”

Speaking out against desalination

Six days after Exxon accepted Corpus Christi’s offer of water in 2017, the city authorized an application for state funding to develop preliminary plans for a seawater desalination plant.

When Steel Dynamics came seeking water in 2018, Corpus Christi offered another 6 million gallons a day, citing “plans for additional water sources in the planning and implementation phase.”

But that wasn’t exactly true. The preliminary plans had yet to be shared with the city council and implementation remained years away at best.

When the plans were presented in 2019, they noted Exxon’s demand scheduled for 2022 and Steel Dynamics’ after that.

“Large increases in water demand are projected to occur in 2022,” the city’s presentation said. “Based on supply and demand projections, the first desalination plant needs to be operational (supplying water) in early 2023.”

The council voted unanimously to adopt the plan. Activists quickly pushed back. Araiza, the leader of For the Greater Good, stood outside Fry’s Electronics on Black Friday speaking out against desalination.

“It’s for industry, not for us. And we pay for it,” she remembers telling shoppers.

Araiza, whose family has been in Corpus Christi for a century, hoped to engage the public in such big decisions about the city’s future, which she said were too often made by small cliques of business elites for their benefit.

“What’s happening with industry and water is symptomatic of a bigger problem,” she said. “Our way of life is problematic: consumerism, disposable products, single-use plastics.”

Araiza joined a budding activist movement that was heaping challenges on the desalination plans, forcing a slate of environmental permit applications through tedious administrative reviews.

Council member Mike Pusley, a retired petroleum geologist and former Exxon employee, was not impressed with the city’s progress. At a meeting in April 2021, he told the Corpus Christi water department its original plans, long delayed, were no longer sufficient.

“I can assure you that within the next five years, you’re going to have several Exxons here, and you’re not going to be ready with a plan. We’re not going to be ready. We’re not going to be ready at all with the water,” he said.

“Lawyers and lobbyists”

While desalination plans fell further behind, the water supply was shrinking. The city’s reservoirs dipped to 40 percent of capacity as drought and heat waves grew acute this summer, prompting new restrictions and $500 fines for anyone caught running a sprinkler more than once per week.

Meanwhile, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority had jumped into the race and claimed a clear lead, threatening the city’s historic monopoly on the regional water supply.

“It’s taking way too long for this to happen. The port has out-warriored us, they’ve out-lobbied us, they’ve out-engineered us,” Pusley said during a city council meeting in July. “How did they get ahead of us? We’re the regional water supplier.”

Read more.