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Texas Matters: Corpus Christi is tapped out

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Because of the ongoing drought, climate change and the increasing demand for water, this week Corpus Christi declared stage two water restrictions.

Stage two is required when the combined levels of Lake Corpus Christi and Choke Canyon Reservoir drop below 30% of storage capacity. Under Stage 2, residents will only be allowed to water their lawns once every other week.

But there are no restrictions for industrial users of water. And there are a lot of industrial users of water in Corpus, and they use a lot of water.

The city has a track record of being generous with the local water supply with refineries that have set up shop there. In 2017 city officials signed over a large portion of their water supply to an ExxonMobil plastic plant that consumes approximately 25 million gallons of water per day.

Industrial water users in Corpus Christi are estimated to use between 60–80% of the city's water supply. It’s been projected that Corpus will outstrip its water supply by the end of this decade—according to the region’s 2021 water plan.

The city of Corpus say they have found a solution. They plan to turn sea water into fresh water.

The city is planning the state’s first large scale seawater desalination project that will pull seawater out of the Gulf of Mexico, filter it and process it to convert it into freshwater.

This is a long-term solution, as it requires permitting and construction. However, progress has been slowed by environmental concerns. The process of desalination produces salty brine as a byproduct. Disposing of this brine in Corpus Christi Bay has raised concerns from environmental regulators about potential ecological damage because the bay is essentially closed to the open gulf.

The desal discharge is super concentrated with salt and is deprived of oxygen. It is more dense than regular sea water, so it sinks. This creates a dead zone where sea life can’t survive.

But there is another concern. The plan calls for placing the desalination project in the Hillcrest neighborhood, a historically black community.

Corpus Christi’s Hillcrest neighborhood has a history of fighting against environmental injustice through Title VI lawsuits against the city.

The lawsuits allege a pattern by the city of placing industrial facilities in the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood. Residents argue this disproportionately burdens their community with environmental hazards.

Since 2007, there have been three federal civil rights complaints filed. Residents successfully stopped the city from building a second sewage treatment plant in Hillcrest. In 2015 a complaint challenged the route for a new highway that would have cut off Hillcrest and increased pollution. This resulted in a settlement with relocation options for residents. And most recently in 2022 a lawsuit targets the planned desalination plant in Hillcrest. Residents argue it perpetuates environmental racism and exposes them to risks from the brine disposal.

The Hillcrest residents argue the city's decisions violate their housing rights by placing environmental burdens on their minority community. The desalination plant lawsuit is ongoing and if successful could block federal funds needed for the construction of the desalination project.

Despite this, and also serious questions about obtaining the necessary permits for the desal plan, the city is still committed to desalination as a way to ensure a sustainable water supply in the future.

They are working with regulators to address environmental concerns and get the project approved.

Meanwhile local activists are organizing and educating the public about what they say is a deeply flawed project.

Recently a local documentary was released that elevated the many complaints from the community members about multiple projects in Corpus including the long delayed and over budget harbor bridge which was halted due to design safety concerns.

The documentary is called Water and Soil: Environmental Justice in Corpus Christi.

Carlos Villarreal is the director of the documentary. I spoke to him along with a resident from Hillcrest Renoir LaMarcus Knox and Jennifer Bray Senior Communications Manager for the Environmental Defense Fund.

We also spoke with Drew Molly, the chief operating officer for Corpus Christi Water. He says concerns about the brine degrading the bay’s ecosystem are inaccurate and he disputes claims that the bay is a closed system.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi