From The Austin American-Statesman
By Asher Price

The state environmental agency today could give the go-ahead for the construction of a large petroleum coke power plant in Corpus Christi, likely leading the city to accelerate a plan to take billions of gallons of faraway Colorado River water.

Though the city is unlikely to use the water for at least another decade, the plan will probably put further strain on the Colorado, which runs through Austin and is the source of drinking water for a wide swath of Central and South Texas.

The situation illustrates the increasing reality in Texas of shipping water across vast distances to slake the thirst of cities and industry.

The Corpus Christi plant, which needs water to generate the steam that turns its turbines, would not take water directly from the Colorado, which eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Matagorda. But the plant’s needs could accelerate a long-term plan to pipe water from the Colorado to the Corpus Christi area, according to Oscar Martinez, an assistant manager for the City of Corpus Christi.

Corpus Christi does not get the water through a contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority, the quasi-governmental utility that had to pull out of a massive water-sharing deal with San Antonio because competition for its supplies has grown fierce as cities have sprawled and industries have grown. Instead, Corpus Christi bought the right to 11 billion gallons of Colorado River water per year outright in the late 1990s for $18 million from an irrigation company, which had some of the most senior water rights on the river, as part of a long-term strategy for meeting its down-the-road needs, said Gustavo Gonzalez, director of water operations for Corpus Christi.

Corpus Christi has rights to about 68 billion gallons of water a year, largely from Choke Canyon Reservoir, Lake Corpus Christi and Lake Texana. The city’s current annual demand is about 42 billion gallons. The Las Brisas plant would require about 5 billion gallons a year. (By comparison, Travis County businesses and residents currently consume about 69 billion gallons of Colorado River water a year.)

Las Brisas “pushes the needle a little bit,” Martinez said, and instead of pumping water from the Colorado in 2030, the city is more likely to begin pumping around 2020.

The underground pipeline, which is still being designed and will break ground in 2012 at the earliest, could cost as much as $115 million, said Gonzalez, and would run about 40 miles from Bay City to Lake Texana. From there, it would mix with Lake Texana water that is already transported to the Corpus area.

The Corpus plant is the latest indication of how a growing demand for electricity translates into increased thirst for water.

In the Colorado River basin, manufacturing facilities and power plants currently require 17 percent of overall demand for Colorado River water — their demand jumps to 26 percent by 2060, according to one study.

But before the Corpus plant gets off the ground, Las Brisas Energy Center LLC, the company proposing to build it, has to get an air permit from the state environmental agency. The facility would burn enough of the coallike coke to power at least 650,000 homes.

Environmental groups have battled against the plant, which they say would sully air quality. They received a boost in March when two state administrative law judges recommended the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality not award a permit.

The state administrative judges concluded “that there remain unresolved issues which preclude the granting of the permits at this time.”

The judges found that Las Brisas Energy Center undertook no analysis of some of the emission control technology to be used at the plant’s boilers and failed to properly account for some emissions associated with the plant. The company proposes building the 1,320-megawatt plant on the north side of the Port of Corpus Christi’s Inner Harbor by 2013.

The agency’s public interest counsel has also recommended denying a permit.

But the three-member commission has shrugged off the advice of the law judges and the public interest counsel in the past.

In a filing, the company said it had “proved compliance with all applicable statutory and regulatory requirements” and stated that the judges suffered “confusion over proper application and interpretation of the Texas Clean Air Act and federal Clean Air Act requirements.”

A spokesman for Las Brisas did not return calls for comment. The company has partnered with Houston’s Chase Power Development to build the plant. Chase spent as much as $150,000 in lobbying fees in 2009, according to records with the Texas Ethics Commission.

The plant is one of several that the commission is considering. Also on the burner is the White Stallion plant in Bay City, which would also take Colorado River water, at least 8 billion gallons a year; and plants in Sweetwater and Midland. In recent months, the commission has approved plants that burn coal or coke outside Victoria, Houston and Waco.

 

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