Not a drop to drink

I have two questions regarding this Trib story about the dire drought situation in Odessa.

The city of Odessa, facing a dire drought situation, is looking to an unlikely example for help in finding water: the desert city of El Paso.

Water pressure in Odessa dropped in August, and residents can only water their lawns during the dark of night. Two of the three lakes the city normally relies on for water are almost completely dry. The other is less than 25 percent full and is expected to run out late next year, said Guy Andrews, director of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce.

But a few hundred miles farther west, El Paso’s half-million residents have plenty of water even though they live in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert, thanks to a massive desalinization plant and a successful 20-year-old conservation program.

Odessa is apparently a good candidate for a desalinization plant. They sit on top of a lot of brackish water, which is less salty than ocean water and thus less expensive to turn into fresh water. The story says that the Odessa Development Corporation, which is the entity investigating this, is seeking to raise up to $50 million from private investors and hopes to have a plant up and running in the next two to three years. Which makes me wonder, what exactly happens in the meantime if that third lake runs dry? What other sources of water do they have?

Also, as the story notes, El Paso has been aggressively promoting water conservation, which has resulted in them not being particularly affected by the current drought. The desalinization plant treats 27 million gallons of water a day, which is nearly 10 billion gallons a year, while the conservation efforts save another four billion gallons a year. What if anything is Odessa doing, or has it been doing, to push conservation? Restricting when you can water your lawn is one thing, but as El Paso has shown, providing incentives to get rid of them altogether and replace them with plants that need less water is better. (Tiered pricing is also a good idea.) What has Odessa been doing to prepare itself for this day? The story doesn’t say. Does anybody know?

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5 Responses to Not a drop to drink

  1. Don’t know the answer to your question, but I do think we should be careful in thinking about desalinization. If you’re down to your last straw, so to speak, how wise is it to start pumping it in order to water lawns made up of some invasive species (St. Augustine). It’s one thing is one small entity does that, but if everybody starts pumping that brackish water, does the surface begin to sink as happened in the Houston area when we overpumped the freshwater aquifers?

  2. Ryan says:

    Odessa, or actually the Colorado River Municipal Water District, is building a pipeline to Odessa from a well field nearby. The field is intended as an emergency supply of water, since the aquifer will not recharge quickly once the water is removed. This emergency supply will provide enough water for the city for about 20 years.

    The city also sits on top of an ocean of brine water. There is now a plan to build a desalination plant so that this water can be used instead of the emergency aquifer. Since the water is brine it is less salty than sea water and can be desalinated more easily.

    Odessa has only the usual water conservation programs that most places have, ie. low flow toilets and shower heads, etc. There has been no push to remove lawns because it has not been needed. Odessa is on a grassland plain, it is not a desert like El Paso. This drought has been the worst in recorded history in the area; in normal years there is more than enough surface water to provide for the city. Once the desalination plant is built and the drought ends, Odessa will have a huge surplus of water.

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  5. Ryan, “grassland plain” overstates the case. Odessa is in semidesert would be a more accurate statement. If you look at maps, the Chihuahuan Desert comes within 100 miles of Odessa, which is why there’s a Chihuahuan Desert Research Center at Fort Davis. Having formerly lived in that part of the country, increased, ongoing water conservation (which El Paso has, through things like massively promoting low-flow toilets, etc.) needs to be part of the solution, not just a desal plant, which ain’t cheap.

    And, as for longer-term rainfall, most climate change models say West Texas, like the Desert Southwest, will get less rain on average in the future.

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