World's largest inland desal plant 10 years old
September 28, 2017

Concentrate management is still the chief barrier for inland desalination applications, but new research is identifying solutions to that challenge, according to analysts at a forum marking the 10th anniversary of the world’s largest inland desalination plant in El Paso.

Utilities will continue to contend with expensive options for removal, such as evaporation, thermal brine concentration, and deep well injection, said Guy Carpenter, president of the WateReuse Association.  Even so, inland desalination remains a viable option for desert utilities, said Carpenter, as he praised the groundbreaking Kay Bailey Hutchison Plant, which has attracted visitors from around the globe and produced 17 billion gallons of water since it opened in 2007.

“This stands as a great example to the rest of the arid west and is an essential component of El Paso’s portfolio of water resources to help sustain the thriving local economy and the military operations at Fort Bliss,” Carpenter said.

Back in the late 1980s, El Paso was facing a bleak future in water management – including predictions the city would run out of water by 2009.

“Given the vast brackish groundwater resources, desalination has become an important part of the puzzle that will ensure we have a vital water future for this community, including for our kids, grandchildren and anybody who wants to live here in the future,” said John Balliew, president and CEO of El Paso Water.

Desalination research

Employees, legislators, and industry experts gathered Sept. 15 for the anniversary celebration and research forum, which featured highlights of experimental work conducted through the Consortium for High Technology Investigation on Water and Wastewater and how the findings could shape the future.

Representatives from several research institutions, including the University of Texas at El Paso, Enviro Water Minerals, and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Brackish Ground Water National Desalination Research Facility, shared details of their work, which focused primarily on concentrate management – leading towards the goal of zero liquid discharge.

membranesResearch presentations also covered techniques to improve the membrane filtration process, including self-cleaning filters, microfiber cartridges, and electrodialysis.

A tour of the facility included the Consortium for High Technology Investigation on Water and Wastewater research laboratory, located inside the desalination plant, and discussions of the lab’s recent projects. The lab tour featured the University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Inland Desalination System’s work and pilot scale system. Under the director of Malynda Cappelle, who presented at the research forum, the center is focused on developing technologies that will use desalination to produce high quality water at low cost, reduced energy consumption, and decreased concentrate volumes.

Barb Martin, AWWA’s director of engineering and technical services, who also spoke at the forum, said integrated water resource management is critical to long-range planning, particularly in the desert southwest.

In addition to technical barriers, she said another hurdle looming in desal’s future is the thousands of water sector retirements expected in the next year.

“The desalination process, similar to other treatment processes, requires skilled operators to ensure the consistent production of safe, high-quality water.  Maintaining a skilled workforce will help utilities more readily embrace technical advances to address future water needs,” Martin said.

Martin said she was pleased that many researchers, particularly through the consortium lab and the Enviro Water Minerals project, are working on the challenges of residuals management and concentrate disposal. 

“The great thing is El Paso Water and others in the field are pushing the envelope and doing research and finding solutions, so that we can provide a blueprint for utilities to follow and hopefully increase the use of desalination technology in the future,” she said.

AWWA is also actively working on desalination challenges. The manual, M69: Inland Desalination and Concentrate Management, is expected to be published late next year. 

In addition to the desalination plant tour, forum attendees visited the new neighboring facility operated by Enviro Water Minerals, which will take the plant’s brine concentrate – that would otherwise go through a deep-well injection process – and turn the salts and minerals into industrial-grade commercial products.

The company calls it the first full-recovery desalination facility. As part of a utility partnership, Enviro Water Minerals will then sell fresh drinking water back to the utility for distribution to customers. At full capacity, the company can provide EPWU with 2 million gallons of water per day.

By changing how El Paso Water manages concentrate, the partnership with Enviro may help position the utility to expand the desalination plant. The biggest barrier to expansion, so far, has been concentrate management.

El Paso’s journey

In 1989, Ed Archuleta, the renowned water conservation pioneer, became general manager of El Paso Water.

Under Archuleta’s leadership, the utility developed a 50-year plan to diversify its water portfolio by using conservation, reclamation, and reuse of water, surface water from the Rio Grande, desalination and importation of water.

Archuleta, who retired in January 2013, was at the anniversary celebration and spoke about the challenges El Paso faced when he first arrived.

“How can you have economic development if people don’t have water?” he said. “Water means public health, water means security, but it also means economic development. This city was trying to find ways to provide economic development, but we had this issue that we were known as the city that might run out of water.”

Paul Choules, president of the Texas Desalination Association, spoke about taking advantage of the lower cost of energy in Texas. The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power released a report this summer on the declining cost of energy in Texas and credited a competitive market, the price of natural gas, and the use of wind, solar, and nuclear power.

“The reality is in the state of Texas we should be able to desalinate cheaper than anywhere in the world, and one of the major reasons for that is the cost of energy,” Choules said.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said the Kay Bailey Hutchison plant has played a pivotal role in fortifying the city’s resiliency to droughts while meeting the needs of its growing population. 

“The plant is a unique asset to this community that sets El Paso apart,” Margo said.

“The research underway here will shape the future of desalination,” Archuleta said.

Special thanks to El Paso Water and Barb Martin for providing content for this story.