On the Texas Gulf Coast, a race to build desalination plants to serve a thirsty oil & gas industry

On the Texas Gulf Coast, a race to build desalination plants to serve a thirsty oil & gas industry

August 23, 2022

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Adam Carrington, pastor of Brooks AME Worship Center, stood on a patch of grass in Hillcrest, the remnants of a once-thriving neighborhood now surrounded by oil refineries and other heavy industry. Behind him rose the stacks of a Citgo refinery. To his left, storage tanks owned by Flint Hills Resources rose over a channel dug for massive tanker ships.

“This was supposed to be a buffer zone,” Carrington said of the land, a patch of empty lots standing between the industry and a few remaining occupied houses. “Now they want to put desalination here.”

The neighborhood, once filled with homes and small businesses, is where the City of Corpus Christi plans a desalination plant that can treat up to 30 million gallons per day of water from the Gulf of Mexico, removing the salt so the freshwater can be used by local industries and residents. The facility is one of at least six desalination plants planned for Corpus Christi and surrounding refinery hubs and tourist towns, a region known as the Texas Coastal Bend.

City officials claim that desalination is for everyone and the right solution to the region’s water woes. But records show that industry is clearly driving demand. The plans for the six desalination facilities, combined, show a 33-fold increase in water demand from heavy industry, according to the regional water plan for the Coastal Bend.

Local watchdog groups and environmentalists are fighting the plants. They believe the projects will hike residents’ water bills to serve a massive industry expansion, all while dumping highly concentrated brine with heavy metals into the bays and estuaries where they fish, paddle, windsurf, and swim.

For example, the Port of Corpus Christi’s proposed Harbor Island desalination plant would discharge 96 million gallons of concentrated saltwater (brine) per day, according to public records reviewed by Oil & Gas Watch. The City of Corpus Christi’s La Quinta Channel plant would discharge 91 million gallons of brine a day, and the port’s desalination plant on La Quinta Channel would release another 57 million gallons. All told, the six desalination plants – if built – could discharge more than 362 million gallons of brine per day.

On top of all this, the proposed Corpus Christi Polymer & Desalination Plant – a proposed petrochemical manufacturing plant with an attached desalination facility – would release up to 1,048 tons per year of potentially health-damaging air pollutants, including 79 tons per year of particulate matter and 202 tons per year of volatile organic compounds, according to public records in the Oil & Gas Watch database.

The race for desalination comes during a crippling drought, especially in Central Texas, where most of the springs that feed the rivers that run to the Gulf Coast have run dry. During dry years, flows of freshwater to the coast become unreliable, so Texas water experts have for decades discussed desalination as a long-term solution for the Coastal Bend.

Corpus Christi’s water supplies come from three lakes on the Frio, Nueces, and Colorado Rivers. The two main reservoirs it draws from, Choke Canyon and Lake Corpus Christi, are 34 percent and 54 percent full, respectively. Residents currently face fines of at least $500 per day for watering their lawns more than once a week.

Industrial facilities, however, are exempt from such drought restrictions, if they pay a fee meant to offset the cost of new water supplies. Oil, gas, and manufacturing customers who use at least 100,000 gallons per day are allowed to pay 25 cents per 1,000 gallons and be exempt from all but the most severe drought cutbacks, according to city code.

City officials say they’ve amassed $17 million in the water supply fund. However, state water planning documents show the city’s two desalination plants would cost a combined $657 million at an initial scale of 30 million gallons per day combined. They would cost well over $1 billion if scaled up to full capacity. In 2020, the city applied for a $222 million low-interest state loan to fund desalination.

While all residents who receive water from the City of Corpus Christi will see the impact of desalination on their monthly water bills, resident of Hillcrest and neighboring Washington-Coles will live next-door to the consequences. Once home to dozens of mainly African-and Mexican-American families, the neighborhood has been fragmented by the fossil fuel industry and massive public-works projects to serve the industry’s needs.

Lifetime resident Daniel Peña has heard the trucks rumble past his house for years as the Texas Department of Transportation works to build a new nearly 7-mile, six-lane, 540-feet high bridge meant to allow larger fuel tankers to pass below. In May, a chemical spill in the neighborhood lead to cleanup crews parking trucks on his property, with emergency officials refusing to give him details, he said.

“Every time we have a complaint in this neighborhood, it’s like, ‘Oh, there they go again,’” Peña said. “Don’t you see it’s happening to everyone?”

Stacks and tanks from a Citgo refinery stand behind streets lined with abandoned homes in Corpus Christi's Hillcrest neighborhood.

Water woes spurred push for desalination

Isabel Araiza’s family is one of thousands in Corpus Christi left repeatedly without clean water for weeks. The longest outage left Araiza boiling her water for 22 days.  

In July and September 2015 and in May 2016, the City issued three boil water notices due to excess bacteria levels in the water system, followed by a fourth notice in December 2016 warning against drinking or bathing because of possible chemical contamination from an industrial facility’s backflow. Araiza attended a public meeting on the issue, met many of her neighbors, and started organizing meetings with them.

This eventually sparked For the Greater Good, an informally organized group that serves as one of Corpus Christi’s most assertive government watchdogs.

“Our initial organization was really rooted around the accessibility of water, making the city come up with a plan when they had these failures,” Araiza said in an interview. “Because whenever things would happen, it was kind of like each household for themselves.”

Now, Araiza, a sociologist and professor at the local Del Mar College, posts videos on Facebook dissecting upcoming City Council agendas and organizing residents to show up at meetings. In 2020, they launched a petition drive aimed at stopping the city’s desalination efforts. They collected more than 4,000 signatures but didn’t reach the threshold needed for the campaign to move forward.

The effort, Araiza said, was about blocking a project that’s meant for industry, “not for us.”

Isabel Araiza, founder of advocacy group For the Greater Good, stands outside of a food forest the group planted at a Corpus Christi park.

“We would be subsidizing corporate profits,” Araiza said, adding that desalination “also means unbridled industrial build-out. … This will be not just refinery row, but refinery region.”

Araiza’s group wasn’t the only ones to begin rallying in response to the water emergencies. Officials at the city and Port of Corpus Christi have both pointed to past droughts and boil water notices as the reason for their urgency to implement desalination.

“We were told by our customers, the Exxons, the Chenieres, and all the new customers moving to this area, that they needed a reliable, sustainable source of water,” said David Engel, who has served as the city’s appointee on the Port Commission since 2013, at a May meeting.

Few believe that all of the proposed desalination plants will get built. However, instead of cooperating to serve their main industrial base, the race for desalination has been marked by competition and infighting between the city and the Port of Corpus Christi. During council meetings this summer, members grilled city staff and appointees about whether the port’s permits appear to be moving faster than the city’s.

“The permits from the port are competing with the city’s … that is the bottom line,” Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo said at a June meeting. Guajardo is among the city officials who have said desalination rightfully should be the city’s focus.

“We are the water producer, distributor, even planner, and so this is a function of the city,” Guajardo said.

But some port staff and allies have complained about at the city’s plans. Even though the Port Commission officially endorsed a white paper supporting the city’s permitting efforts, port CEO Shaun Strawbridge drew outrage when he told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that the city’s desalination site would be a waste of taxpayer money, when the port already owns land in the area.

The fraught relationship between city and port involves a bribery allegation. In December 2021, one city councilman reported to law enforcement that he had been approached with a bribe by a potential port commissioner seeking reappointment, according to KRIS 6 News. What happened after the incident and any potential law enforcement follow-up remains unclear.

Despite the hours of public debate about desalination over the past three years, the city has released only a dribble of details about how much residents’ bills could rise. One graphic on the city’s website states desalination will add $3.76 per month to the average resident's bill in 2029, compared to 2020 rates.

Roland Barrera, a Corpus Christi councilman who supports desalination, noted the absence of financial information in a July 19 council meeting.

“I just want to ensure that whatever we do, that we have a rate model that’s predictable to our residents,” Barrera said. “Even though we’re supporting industry and that supports the economy, it’s the residents that elect us, and we have to make those decisions based on that.”

Residents have had a hard time even finding out basic facts about the water system, including what percentage of the city’s water goes to industry. In 2021, one water utility staffer told council members that 80 percent would go to industry, once two large new customers ramped up to full capacity. In June, water utility Chief Operating Officer Michael Murphy told the council that 55 percent of the city’s water goes to industry. One week later, City Manager Peter Zanoni said at a town hall meeting that figure was actually “less than 50 percent.”

A Corpus Christi Water spokeswoman declined to answer a list of emailed questions about residential and industrial water demand, desalination plant costs, and the conflicting percentages presented by city staff.

Figures for the Port of Corpus Christi’s desalination plants are also murky. At a May meeting, port Chair Charles Zahn said that the entity would conduct financial modeling only after it had received the approved permits.

“We’re not to the point of having specifics now,” said Zahn, who's chaired the commission since 2016. “We don’t know what our role would be, we don’t know who our customers are. … Today, all we’re trying to do is get a permit so we’re available to help the City of Corpus Christi and the citizens of Corpus Christi, our economic development corporations, as they try to bring new industry in and try to create new jobs.”

Salinity tipping points at risk

Marilena Garza grew up in Beeville, a small town about an hour inland from the coast – a short drive by Texas standards. During a day at a fishing pier with her dad when she was around eight years old, she remembers finding beds of clams and oysters and eagerly putting them into a bucket to eat later.

Her dad told her to put them back. When he was a child, the water might have been clean enough to harvest mollusks. By the time Garza was the same age, the water had become too polluted.

“I could tell that my dad was disappointed,” Garza said in an interview. “And he feels responsible because he’s a senior piping engineer. He drew a lot of these industries’ blueprints for them.”

Experiences like these gave Garza a nuanced view of the industry. She’s seen the benefits it’s brought her family, along with the costs – long hours, grueling working conditions, and exposure to toxic chemicals.

Garza moved to Corpus Christi after attending college in Austin. A licensed massage therapist, she opened a studio called Coastal Bend Dayspa in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. She accepted – even embraced – the crumbling streets, abandoned houses, and large population of homeless residents in the area, where she’s met other likeminded residents and small business owners. Her first move was to puta neon sign in her window that says, “I Love Uptown.”

Marilena Garza, a massage therapist who owns a studio in Corpus Christi's Uptown neighborhood, thinks local government often puts big business first.

She also began ramping up her activism, focusing on the City’s response to homelessness, its criminal justice policies, and local environmental issues. During a December 2021 event at a downtown pier, Garza joined other anti-protesters standing behind Guajardo, Corpus Christi’s mayor, to ruin her photo op with anti-desalination signs.

“I'm standing up for Corpus Christi,” Garza said. “I'm not saying completely no desalinization, I'm saying we need to pump our brakes. If this is such a great idea, why are we trying to ram it through the hole so quick?”

One of Garza’s biggest concerns is how the discharge from the plant will affect Corpus Christi Bay, a shallow, brackish estuary that’s a popular fishing spot for redfish and sea trout.

The city’s two proposed desalination plants and one of the port’s would draw water from the bay and discharge ultra-concentrated brine back into the estuary. In a 2021 report, marine scientists with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute wrote that the bay already has high salt levels because of hot temperatures causing evaporation and the sluggish pace of water circulation.

If the city and port receive their desalination permits, they won’t be the first to the finish line. Corpus Christi Polymers, a planned plastics manufacturing site, has already received a permit for desalination at a site about four miles east of the City’s Hillcrest site. Thai parent company Indorama Ventures announced in July that it would resume construction on the $1.1 billion plastics facility this month, though there was no mention of desalination.

“There’s a permit in the inner harbor already, and that’s a little bit of a problem,” Port Commissioner Bryan Gulley said at a May meeting. “If there’s anything that’s going to … give them problems with their permit, it may be the fact that there’s already a permit been given in the inner harbor, and this would be the second permit given in that area without a lot of water flow.”

But with freshwater supplies already stressed and the fossil fuel industry pursuing multiple routes to desalination, the technology feels like the inevitable next step to those who want to see the industry grow. Michael Murphy, the chief operating officer for Corpus Christi’s water system, told residents in a December 2021 virtual town hall that “make no mistake, desalination is the water source of the future of the Gulf Coast region.”

An aerial view of an Exxon-SABIC plastics manufacturing facility under construction near Corpus Christi, one of several oil and gas-related projects that will require large amounts of fresh water to operate. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2019.
Brendan Gibbons
Oil & Gas Watch Reporter

Brendan joined EIP in June 2022 after working as an environmental reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio Report, and the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the nonprofit sector, before joining EIP Brendan served as assistant manager of a Texas clean water advocacy organization, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

On the Texas Gulf Coast, a race to build desalination plants to serve a thirsty oil & gas industry

On the Texas Gulf Coast, a race to build desalination plants to serve a thirsty oil & gas industry

August 23, 2022
Brendan Gibbons
Oil & Gas Watch Reporter

Brendan joined EIP in June 2022 after working as an environmental reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio Report, and the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the nonprofit sector, before joining EIP Brendan served as assistant manager of a Texas clean water advocacy organization, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.