Men's Breakfast Report, January 2013


The Men’s Breakfast Group met Saturday, January 12 with Ronnie Woodruff, Director of the Brazosport Water Authority, and one of his operators, Wyatt Ringgold.  Ronnie started out in industry with Nalco in water treatment chemical.  When they lost their main contracts he was laid off.  He took this opportunity to come to Texas and was hired to work in water treatment plants.  He worked at the Brazosport Water Authority plant when it was started up and then at several other plants.  He returned to the Brazosport Water Authority as director. 
Ronnie and Wyatt made a presentation showing the water treatment plant.  They had slides showing the clarifiers holding tanks, pumps and chemical storage facilities.  The treatment plant takes muddy water from the Brazos via the Brazoria or Harris reservoir.  They add alum solution to the water to precipitate all the mud and bacteria to produce clear water.  They then filter it through beds containing sand and anthracite (hard coal).  Ammonia and chlorine are added to make chloramine, a long lasting disinfectant, before sending it to the cities for distribution to residents.  
The two main sources of water to the cities of Brazosport are well water and Brazos River water.  Well water comes from the Gulf Coast aquifer which extends about a hundred miles from the coast.  Withdrawals from the aquifer are governed by the Brazoria County Water Conservation Board.  However, the board has very little power and the Texas rule of capture is still in effect.  This rule says that you may pump as much water from under your land as you want, as long as you do not cause damaging subsidence in your neighbor’s land.  Depleting the aquifer so that the neighbor can no longer get any water is legal.  In practice, this means that residents of unincorporated areas of the county can have wells without any regulation.  It also means that farmers can irrigate with ground water without regulation.  Only the cities are regulated.   The state has declared that the maximum sustainable groundwater withdrawal from the Gulf Coast aquifer for Brazoria County is 50,000 acre feet.  At present we are taking about 45,000 acre feet, so there is little ability to increase pumping.  However, there has been significant drawdown of the aquifer and salt water intrusion into it over the years.  This implies that the sustainable withdrawal is much less than the 45,000 acre feet already being pumped. 
The other source of water is the Brazos River.  The Brazos River rises in New Mexico and flows through west Texas.  The river gets its water from rains in some of the driest areas of Texas.  A west Texas drought will significantly reduce the flow in the river.  Water in the river is owned by rights holders.  The rights are based on how much you used and when; the older the rights, the higher priority for water.  If the holders of the oldest rights take all the water, the newer rights holders are just out of luck and water.  However, it is difficult to enforce this, especially against upstream users.  This is the reason for the attempt by Brazoria county users to get a water master who can measure diversions and fine people who take more than their allotment.  The upstream users are, of course, against the appointment of a water master.  The Brazos River authority holds all the water rights not held by older holders.  The newspaper says that Dow Chemical has 1929 water rights, some of the oldest.  Since Dow sold rights to the Brazos Water Authority, the Authority should be in good shape.  However, the rights that Dow sold are 1960 rights and decidedly junior rights.  This meant that during last summer’s drought, there was no water available from the 1960 rights and the Brazosport Water Authority had to buy water from the Brazos River Authority for $300,000.    Another problem is that most of the water in the river during times of low flow is coming from sewage treatment plants.  Some cities have tried to claim that they can put sewage water back in the river and then take it out without exceeding their allotment.  The law has been made clear that once you put the water back it belongs to the River Authority.  The cities can, however, send the effluent from the sewage plant directly to the drinking water plant.  This has not been done because of opposition of the voters to the “yuck” factor of the process.  However, some cities may overcome this resistance because of the lack of any other source of water.  This will reduce the flow of the river even more and make it harder for Brazosport to get the water it needs. 
The present population of Brazoria County is projected to grow from 200,000 to 900,000 by 2050.  This will create an enormous increase in demand for water.  Most of this growth will be in the northern part of the county which expects to get water from the Brazos River.  The Brazosport Water Authority has pipelines delivering water up to north of Angleton and could extend them further.  The problem will be to get water.  The river and the aquifer are already almost maxed out.  Climate change will probably reduce rain in west Texas, making the problem worse.
The solution that Brazos Water Authority is proposing is desalinization.  They are not proposing sea water desalinization but rather getting brackish water from an aquifer underlying the Gulf Coast Aquifer.  This aquifer has a salinity of 1000 ppm, while seawater has a salinity of 35,000 ppm.  A reverse osmosis desalinization plant using this brackish water needs to pressurize the water to only 400 psi instead of the 1200 psi required to desalinate seawater.  This translates to one third the energy cost of desalinating sea water.  The expense will still be much higher than the present cost of water.  However, the price of water from the Brazosport River Authority will go eventually go up to where desalinization is the most economical choice for Brazosport.   Upstream users will seldom have the option of desalinization partially because of difficulty in disposing of the waste brine.  The cost of a desalinization plant will be high and will require a bond issue.  It was not clear how the bond would be issued or if it would require voter approval.  The projections for the very high population in Texas and Brazoria County could be invalid if the cost of water is so high because industry will move to locations with cheaper water, such as Michigan. 
The men had an interesting discussion and a good breakfast.  The next meeting will be Saturday, February 9th.