The City of Corpus Christi supplies water to half a million people in Texas’s Coastal Bend region. Its water supplies are derived from surface water from local reservoirs and Texas’s Colorado River. After the drought years of 2011 and 2013, it became apparent that alternative water supplies were needed. With this in mind, Corpus Christi has begun work with the consulting firm Freese and Nichols to develop plans for two potential seawater desalination plants.
In this interview, Steve Ramos, the city’s water resources manager, speaks with Municipal Water Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about the process of siting and permitting the new plants—and the benefits they could bring to Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background and how you ended up in your current position.
Steve Ramos: I am the water resources manager for the City of Corpus Christi. My background is in water. I previously worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), where I spent 12–13 years working on water rights. I was a project manager with TCEQ working with multiple entities from across the state of Texas on water rights projects and water rights applications; I also worked along with the hydrology team and other members of the permitting process on rulemaking for the state.
Around 2011, I was given the opportunity to become the South Texas and Concho water master for TCEQ. I was in charge of overseeing permits and regulations regarding surface water rights for about 50 counties in South Texas. At the same time, I was also in charge of the Concho water-master area in West Texas. I was in charge of water rights regulations for the state, making sure that water rights holders were abiding by their water rights, working together, and resolving any issues that arose and also making sure that the prior-appropriations doctrine and rules and regulations were being followed. Toward the end of 2016, I was given the opportunity to come work for the City of Corpus Christi as the water resource manager for the city.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about Corpus Christi’s current water portfolio. Where does the city’s water come from?
Steve Ramos: The City of Corpus Christi has four sources of water. We are a surface water–based utility servicing approximately 500,000 people—individual customers, industrial customers, and commercial users—within our region of the Coastal Bend. Our surface water comes from the Nueces River basin, where we have two large reservoirs, Choke Canyon Reservoir and Lake Corpus Christi. Moving eastward, we have a contract with the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority for water out of Lake Texana, which is delivered via the Mary Rose pipeline to our O. N. Stevens Water Treatment Plant. Further eastward, we have a surface water right on the Colorado River itself; we divert that water to our treatment plant via what we refer to as the Mary Rose Phase 2 Component, part of the same pipeline that we use to move our Lake Texana Water.
Kris Polly: What is the breakdown of your users?
Steve Ramos: Around 36 percent of our water goes to residential customers, 60 percent goes to industrial users, and the rest is commercial.
Kris Polly: What motivated Corpus Christi to look into desalination?
Steve Ramos: The City of Corpus Christi is the leader in providing water for this region, and as the leader, we need to look at diversifying our water supply and water rights portfolio. We learned that very well in 2011 and 2013, when the drought of record in the Nueces River basin threatened our supplies. The city and its large-volume customers started to take a hard look at diversifying our water portfolio. It is always a good practice as a planner to look at the availability of different water supplies, from groundwater to desalination, but those 2 years really made us focus on the effects of the drought and how we needed to protect our customers by developing a drought-proof or drought-resistant water supply.
Kris Polly: Would you tell us about the desalination infrastructure that is now being planned?
Steve Ramos: Currently, we are working on the siting and permitting process for two seawater desalination plants. We are looking at two large areas of interest in San Patricio County along the La Quinta Channel and then in an area we call the Corpus Christi ship channel. In those areas, we will focus in on specific sites and particular properties.
The plants would produce potable water. This new supply would be integrated into the overall water system, boosting the drought resilience of Corpus Christi’s water supply. The city is currently working with its consultant, Freese and Nichols, to determine the siting and permitting of two seawater desalination plants. Based on that work, we will apply for permits later this year.
Kris Polly: Do you know who you will be working with to design and construct the new plant?
Steve Ramos: We are not at that stage yet in the process. Our consultant right now is Freese and Nichols. The firm is the owner’s representative on the siting and permitting stage of the project.
Kris Polly: How much potable water are you expecting the new plants to produce?
Steve Ramos: The plant we are planning for the Corpus Christi ship channel would have an ultimate capacity of about 36 million gallons per day (MGD). The plant on the La Quinta Channel side could produce 48 MGD.
Kris Polly: How would your desalinated water supplies compare with other water supplies in terms of cost?
Steve Ramos: Surface water is the low-hanging fruit of water supply. All you need to do is pump water out of a river and send it to a water treatment plant. But surface water supplies are not drought resistant. In Texas, we work on a prior-appropriations doctrine—first in time, first in right—which reduces our ability to secure our water supplies when we need them most, namely, during those dry times. That is why we need to look at diversifying our portfolio.
As technology advances, desalinated water is becoming more affordable and more competitive. We are also doing our due diligence to make sure that our desalinated water supply will be as reliable as possible by reducing the risks related to plant location, size, and permitting. At the end of the day, our customers expect us to provide them with a reliable, dependable, drought-proof supply of water; the price of any given water source is just one consideration when pursuing that broader goal.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about the challenges of brine disposal and how you foresee that working with your projected plants.
Steve Ramos: Our current project addresses the environmental and technological challenges of brine disposal. We need to make sure that we are stewards of our environment and to integrate the best technologies available into our facilities. Once we decide where our plants are going to be built, we will do research into the characteristics of the local water body. When we have a good understanding of the water chemistry throughout the year, we will be able to plan how to optimize the desalination process through the year. We will also research the power needs of the plants. Different-sized plants need different amounts of power. We are fortunate in Texas to have access to relatively affordable and available power.
Kris Polly: So you expect to dispose of the brine directly into the ocean?
Steve Ramos: Ultimately, we are going to use a diffuser that will spread the brine through the column of water. We are actually required to model how that will work in our application to the state for a disposal permit. That process of modeling will tell us how small or large the cone of floridity will be—the distance from the diffuser at which the brine mixes in to the water and matches the ambient salinity levels.
Kris Polly: Would you tell us about public opinion on desalination?
Steve Ramos: We do a lot of water conservation outreach in our community, and in my opinion, our community understands that we need a more consistent, reliable water source. Many people here have lived through record droughts and have seen the population grow in our area. They understand the importance of this work. As a steward of the environment and as a citizen of the Coastal Bend, I understand and share concerns that we must ensure that we do not harm the environment. That is why we are doing our due diligence now to make sure that we are siting in the right places and that we can dispose of the brine safely.
We are working through the process alongside our community. We are working with our local colleges and universities to do educational programs and to talk about how they can help us and how we can help them. Our desalination facility or facilities will benefit the entire Coastal Bend.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your vision for Corpus Christi water going into the future.
Steve Ramos: My vision for Corpus Christi water is providing reliable, dependable water for our customers. We are a provider of water for multiple growing communities, so we need to make sure that we serve our users in a way that is responsible, both economically and environmentally.