Express-News beats drum for $1-billion ocean desal

Greg Harman

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Reading Sunday's paper brought with it a rush of anxiety. Columnists were expounding upon and advocating a wildly expensive centralized facility hundreds of miles away to meet growing San Antonio's future needs. Sure, the billion-dollar-plus project would produce far more than we actually needed, but that's a good thing. We could pay down the project's cots by selling off all that excess product to cities and towns between us and the Gulf.

Sound familiar?

No, this isn't the now-infamous South Texas Project nuke expansion resurfacing, it's the ocean-desalination rumba coming through with your favorite print opinion-makers at the head of the line. You see, San Antonio's Clean Technology Forum held another exclusive panel at the Pearl Stables last week, moderated, as always, by Express-News Editor Bob Rivard.

And while the meeting itself made few ripples in the city, one little wave was fortunate to enter the paper's echo chamber, to reverberate in print multiple times as the next Big Idea.

Colin McDonald first honed in on Weir Labatt's enthusiastic endorsement for ocean desalination in his reporting of the event.

A desalination plant on the Gulf of Mexico is the solution to San Antonio's future water needs, a longtime member of the Texas Water Development Board said at a forum Tuesday.

All of the San Antonio Water System's initiatives to get more water and reduce its total dependence on the Edwards Aquifer have failed so far or were unfortunately rejected, said Weir Labatt, who also served on the San Antonio City Council from 1986 to 1993 and was on the Edwards Aquifer Authority board.

“I think SAWS ought to crank up and put a plant on the coast,” he said, adding that he was not speaking for the state board.

The ball was picked up over the weekend, with columnist Jan Jarboe Russell praising the “merit” of Labatt's words, recreating for the reader a roomful of happily bobbing heads, and enthusing over the publicness of the debate.

A page-turn away on Sunday, Rivard did Russell several turns better. Labatt not only “looks and sounds like a wise man,” but is, in fact, (more than anyone else Rivard knows) truly “water-wise.” More than that, Labatt is, in fact, the Jolly Old Elf of rivers, streams, and bogs. He is “Old Man Water” and “When he speaks, we ought to listen,” Rivard wrote.

Selling water to downstream users would offset some of that cost. And if it's true that water is the new oil and that all forms of “new water” will carry a much higher price, doesn't San Antonio want to be a seller instead of a buyer?

In other words, Labatt's idea merits serious consideration.

I am well acquainted with the many tales of woes that befall mortals who cross swords with fairies and the like, but there are serious problems with Old Man Water's prescription for our city, problems that the daily should tackle before piling on so.

Honestly, it's as if the last two years of chaos at CPS Energy never happened.

Remember our recent energy debacle. We accepted our utility's declaration that the city would desperately need new power in the near future at face value. (Turned out we won't need new power for more than a decade.) We didn't challenge the pricing of nuclear power, natural gas, and renewables. (Turns out we were duped.) And some of us (this one is Rivard-centric) toured the South Texas Project nuclear facility and found it good.

For our collective failure to challenge the experts, San Antonio ended up sinking more than $370 million into the STP expansion plans before all those promises were exposed as little more than wishful thinking.

For all the trouble that decision gave us, it would seem that Question One for our opinion-makers would be what power source we will tap into to pump all that water uphill for 200 miles. Then, perhaps, we would talk about how to dispose of all that salt.

While it makes good copy, the splash of desal dreams is not new. In fact, ocean-water desalination already exist within SAWS' 50-year-plan, smartly inhabiting back-burner status. And though I have no direct line to Old Man Water, a gentle sprite still whispers in my ear from time to time.

She suggests that as long as half of San Antonio's summertime water use goes toward sprinkling lush lawns, there's no billion-dollar crisis in sight. The headline she's agitating for has more to do with eradicating the damp-loving mold now spreading among the pixies.

Maybe the Clean Tech folks could tackle that one next. The fairies will bless you.

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