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El Paso desalination plant provides model for San Antonio

KSAT 12 gets plant tour

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Construction on a water desalination plant in San Antonio will begin this fall, so KSAT traveled to El Paso to look at a similar plant in operation there.

The Kay Bailey Hutchison Water Desalination Plant is located in the Chihuahuan Desert near El Paso's airport.

El Paso Water Utilities spokeswoman Christina Montoya said it was conceived in the early '90s and now provides a steady water source for parts of El Paso.

"The amount of high-quality drinking water we're producing at this plant is about 27.5 million gallons per day," Montoya said. "We're the only plant that's inland, basically not an ocean desalination plant, that can produce that much water in one day."

The utility takes salty, brackish water from a bolson, or underground aquifer, and filters out the salt through paper-thin membranes in long tubes. That kind of water is bountiful under the desert.

"There's about 600 percent more brackish or salty water in that aquifer than there is fresh water," Montoya said.

She said the plant does not operate at full capacity all the time, but is able to when water supplies are in high demand.

"This plant is operated at high capacity, almost full capacity during that time of the year when we get that high demand," Montoya said. "So this plant helps us meet that demand in those times."

The plant planned for San Antonio is similar to the El Paso plant, Montoya said, and San Antonio officials have been there to visit.

"We see ourselves as a model for other inland communities," Montoya said. "We've had San Antonio come visit here a handful of times already in the past two years. We have people from the Middle East."

Greg Flores, San Antonio Water System vice president of communications and public service, said because of the prevalence of brackish water in South Bexar County, SAWS also sees the value of a desalination plant.

"There is basically an ocean of brackish water right under our feet, right here in Bexar County," Flores said. "It's a supply that is needed for our future and it's a drought proof supply that isn't contingent upon rainfall."

He said SAWS will start construction later this year on the $400 million desalination plant in South Bexar County that will be online in two years.

"We think we've got a great source of water right here below our feet that can prove to be very beneficial for San Antonio's future," Flores said. "We, of course, here in San Antonio are growing by about 20,000 new people every year."

But he said SAWS will be going one step further than El Paso. "When fully built out, our plant will be the largest inland (desalination) plant in the United States," Flores said.

And, like El Paso, San Antonio's desalination plant will come with an education component.

A learning center connected to the plant is a popular spot in El Paso for tours. A group from St. Raphael Catholic School recently learned about desert wildlife. The center is filled with exhibits about nature and water.

El Paso Water Utilities' Water Conservation and TecH2o Manager Anai Padilla said the utility has been teaching children about conservation for 20 years.

"This place is actually designed to showcase how we manage water in the Chihuahuan Desert," Padilla said. "We want people to understand that water resources are limited here and very valuable. We want people to understand that we cannot make new water, so the water that is on earth has always been on earth."

She said the utility does this on the belief that children who learn about the need to conserve water will turn into adults who practice it. The learning center also includes outdoor exhibits on how rainwater harvesting can help desert plants thrive.

"The desert is full of plants that have colors and flowers and textures and is not your typical desert rocks and cacti," Padilla said. "You can still have green landscapes by selecting the right plants.

You can still have a green lawn but you need to select a different kind of grass, different kinds of plants that are more adapted to the region that you're growing."

There is research done at that plant as well. The production of drinking water results in a byproduct of a concentrated salt solution that is piped 20 miles into the desert where it's disposed of underground.

"Instead of disposing of that we're looking at how we can use that product," Montoya said.

In addition to the desalination plant, SAWS is considering a source of fresh water that would be piped to San Antonio from northeast of Austin.

Click here to see a virtual tour of the desalination plant SAWS plans to build.

For a list of recent stories Brian Mylar has done, click here.

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