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Eunice desalination plant in doubt

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Curtis C. Wynne/News-Sun

EUNICE — A desalination plant for the City of Eunice appears less realistic than hoped, according to engineering experts asked to study the issue.

Planning a final report in June, Hobbs-based Pettigrew and Associates project manager David Roybal offered a preliminary review to the Eunice city council Monday.

Roybal explained the absence of a large reservoir of saline water in the Eunice area, combined with a 2022 state directive, expanded the Pettigrew study to include other alternatives.

As depletion of the fresh water Ogallala Aquifer continues, the Eunice City Council asked the Pettigrew engineering firm to study the feasibility of a proposed alternative — desalination of saline or brackish water, receiving support of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham’s support included more than twice the requested funding for an engineering study, along with assurances of more to come if the study produces promising results, according to then-City Manager Jordan Yutzy.

The governor provided $550,000 in initial funding that became available on July 1, 2021. Yutzy said the current estimate for a completed plant was about $5.5 million. He had only requested $250,000 for funding the engineering study.

“This is a project she wants to pursue. She’s excited about the project,” Yutzy told the News-Sun in the summer of 2021. “She plans on funding the rest of it.”

But the practical aspects of a desalination plant, saline water source and economics, are in doubt while the city still needs to find alternatives.

Roybal told the council on Monday, “Eunice is on the fringe of the Ogallala and salty brine sources. There are pockets of fresh water and pockets of saline scattered about Eunice, which makes finding a saline source to treat iffy.”

In the event a plant is constructed and a saline source is found, Roybal concluded in his preliminary report, there’s a likelihood it wouldn’t last.

“We could find something, but it might not last long and it might not be good for 50 years,” the project manager said. “So, what we’re doing is exploring that as an alternative, but also other possibilities such as waste water treatment plant reuse and even reactivating Nadine water field use.”

The City of Eunice owns rights in a small water field near Nadine where the wells were abandoned decades ago. Roybal said the study will be looking into whether those wells could, or should, be reactivated.

While the study initially was expected to be completed early this year, Roybal explained a directive from the Office of the State Engineer forbidding sale of water from state land to the oil and gas industry inserted a stumbling block.

“Back in September, we were made aware of a directive from the Office of the State Engineer that said if water comes from state land it cannot be sold to the oil and gas industry, which is a big concern for the city,” Roybal told the council. “They’re some of the biggest customers of the city. … The big need right now is to ensure sources to keep providing what the city’s been providing for all users including industrial users.”

Pettigrew and Associates president and CEO Debra Hicks, also at the Eunice City Council meeting Monday, pointed out she had spoken with state officials to encourage them to delay implementation of the directive pending completion of the engineering study.

While Hicks said she enjoyed a positive reception from the state, Pettigrew has yet to receive a confirmation letter.

Roybal concluded, “In light of the state directive and looking at other options, the report is not only going to talk about the possibility of saline treatment but also these other options to give the city a plan for the future. That is a pretty major shift from when we started this report.”

The project manager told the News-Sun that while the final report will have been triggered by the desalination concept, alternative ways of ensuring water availability are essential.

“Desalination was the primary vehicle for that, but we’re finding in the study that’s an option but it’s not looking as readily accessible as some of the other options,” Roybal said.

Desalination removes salt and other impurities usually from sea water or brackish groundwater to provide pure drinking water.

According to the Texas Water Development Board website, Texas currently has a total of 53 municipal desalination facilities with a total desalination capacity of 157 million gallons per day (176,013 acre-feet per year).

The largest inland municipal desalination plant in Texas — the Kay Bailey Hutchison desalination plant in El Paso, with a design capacity of approximately 27.5 million gallons per day (30,800 acre-feet per year) — went into production in August 2007.

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