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Vol. 53-2 Water Quality

August 11, 2023

Water Quality

Plans for Seawater Desalination Plants Take a Salty Turn

Near the end of 2022, Texas was poised to move forward with plans for the first seawater desalination plant in the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued an environmental permit to the Port of Corpus Christi to build its plant on Harbor Island—a culmination of what the Texas Tribune called “years of business strategy, political maneuvering and lawyering effort” from the Port.[1]

But the Port—and others interested in building future marine desalination plants in Texas—may not be so lucky. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can refuse to recognize a permit if it does not comply with the Clean Water Act,[2] and the agency expressed concerns that this permit as it stands may be insufficient to protect both water quality and aquatic life.[3] In a September 2022 letter to the TCEQ, the EPA wrote that there are outstanding concerns that could halt development of the plants.[4] This legal battle highlights the debate over whether Texas can build marine desalination plants in time to alleviate the state’s strain on current water supplies.

Desalination in Texas

Texas’ desalination efforts spread far and wide. Currently, Texas has 53 municipal desalination facilities, which provide a combined desalination capacity of 157 million gallons per day.[5] Two major desalination plants—the Kay Bailey Hutchinson plant in El Paso and the Southmost Regional Water Authority Desalination plant in south Texas—produce a combined 35 million gallons of fresh water per day.[6]

All of Texas’ current municipal desalination plants use brackish surface water or groundwater as their sources.[7] By 2070, the Texas Water Development Board recommends incorporating seawater into desalination practices to help meet demand: The Board suggests generating 192,000 acre-feet of water from brackish groundwater; 63,000 from brackish surface water; and 157,000 from seawater.[8] Combined, these outputs would represent 5.3% of new water supplies.[9]

Though current desalination all involves brackish water, there are five proposed marine desalination plants in Corpus Christi alone.[10] Two proposed plants are from the city of Corpus Christi, two are from the Port, and one is from Corpus Christi Polymers, which has taken over the partially completed industrial seawater desalination plant begun by M&G Resins USA, LLC before it filed for bankruptcy.[11]

Marine Desalination—And Its Potential Problems

Developers must solve several problems before marine desalination can become a viable source of fresh water for industry or drinking purposes. First, it is much more expensive to produce desalinated marine water than desalinated brackish groundwater. According to the Texas Water Development Board, producing desalinated water from brackish groundwater costs $357–$782 per acre-foot.[12] On the other hand, producing desalinated water from the sea may cost twice as much, at $800–$1,400 per acre-foot.[13]

Second, marine desalination produces toxic brine, which may contaminate nearby bodies of water.[14] In Corpus Christi, scientists worry that large quantities of brine dumped into the bay could harm aquatic species’ reproductive cycles, which rely on less-salty waters for larvae to mature.[15] More generally, scientists have also expressed concern that brine discharge combined with shipping pollution and ocean freighter traffic may constitute “a near-fatal blow for life in the bay.”[16] Developers’ studies, however, have modeled that brine discharge in Harbor Island will not lead to a “continual” increase in ambient salinity and that discharge will not create a “high-saline layer of water along the channel bottom.”[17] Other experts disagree. One argues that the brine should be pumped into the open Gulf instead of the shallow bay—a concept supported by scientists but deemed too expensive by developers.[18] But the issue also has a potential solution: a growing body of science that shows this brine can be transformed into useful chemicals, metal recovery, and commercial salt.[19]

Third, like many environmental technologies, desalination can exacerbate existing inequalities.[20] As explained below, the EPA has raised concerns that current desalination proposals can disproportionately impact underserved communities, often because plants and their potential problems are located near those communities.[21] The use of desalination plants also implicates more radical discussions of the human right to water and who should have access to water and for what reasons.[22] Experts in California are already grappling with these questions—and have no easy answer.[23]

EPA’s Concerns

EPA’s concerns about Texas desalination are not new—in 2021, the agency revoked the state’s authority to independently review desalination wastewater permits without the agency’s input.[24] The bulk of the EPA’s current concerns, outlined in its September 2022 letter, stemmed from its inability to review the permit issued by the TCEQ. The EPA disagreed with the TCEQ’s determination that the desalination permit is “minor,” thus not requiring EPA approval; instead, the EPA noted, the permit is “major,” and its issuance could be denied by the EPA if it does not have a chance to review the permit.[25] TCEQ had notice since 2021 that the EPA disagreed with the agency’s classification of this permit as “minor,” and that since the facility seeks to discharge process wastewater, it should be classified as a major facility.[26] “Process wastewater” is any water that “comes into direct contact with or results from the production or use of any raw material, intermediate product, finished product, byproduct, or waste product.”[27]

The EPA’s procedural concerns are accompanied by substantive concerns. For example, in 2021, the EPA requested information about the reporting and monitoring requirements for sulfates, chlorides, and total dissolved solids.[28] While the EPA acknowledged that the facility in question is unconstructed, and thus had no actual measurements, it reiterated that best professional judgment could be used to determine appropriate limits.[29]

Second, the EPA struggled to see how the permit’s revision to include a Whole Effluent Toxicity testing requirement by itself would protect water quality. Whole Effluent Toxicity testing helps permit holders measure and stay within the limits for the aggregate toxic effect of an aquatic sample, and helps replicate aquatic species’ environmental exposure to toxic pollutants without identifying specific pollutants.[30] “Whole Effluent Toxicity testing,” the agency wrote, “is not intended to take the place of other biological assessments that may be appropriate for the assessment of water quality in this receiving water body.”[31] Instead, the EPA acknowledged the possible need for a water-quality-based effluent limitation, which is reserved for situations where normal measures do not meet water quality standards.[32]

Third, Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act establishes requirements and conditions for cooling water intake structures. While the TCEQ concluded that the facility does not intend to use water for cooling purposes, the EPA wanted to address any current and/or future use of water withdrawals from the intake structure.[33]

Finally, the EPA addressed community concerns, namely that the proposed facility could disproportionately impact underserved portions of the community.[34] In October 2022, residents filed a civil rights complaint to stop the city’s seawater desalination plant, which is planned in the predominantly Black Hillcrest neighborhood—an area historically disproportionately impacted by industrial plants and projects.[35] At a public hearing for the Corpus Christi Polymers desalination plant in February 2023, more than thirty people voiced their opinions on marine desalination in Corpus Christi; according to a news report, the meeting room was almost entirely full.[36] The TCEQ is considering renewing the permit for this proposed plant because it had issued permits to M&G Resins, who originally planned to build the plant, prior to the company’s bankruptcy.[37] At the hearing—focusing on the proposed desalination plant—residents brought up everything from plastics pollution in the water to further deterioration of the bay for recreational use.[38]

Fixing Problems

The TCEQ in early 2023 said that it had largely resolved its issues with the EPA over the polymer plant’s permit.[39] TCEQ noted that it had changed the facility’s measures to protect fish from entering the discharge system and increased monitoring for sulfates, chlorides, and dissolved solids.[40] Discussions with the EPA continue as issues around the salinity limit remain unresolved.[41] But the TCEQ’s moves are not enough—the EPA is now informally investigating the state agency.[42] Advocates argue that the state’s permits allow industries to contaminate water, and that the state’s waters are so polluted they are considered impaired under the Clean Water Act.[43] Should the EPA find merit in these allegations, it can launch a formal investigation and could ultimately revoke TCEQ’s authority to regulate water quality.[44]

Race Against the Clock

Despite these regulatory battles, Corpus Christi faces a problem all too familiar to many cities across the south and southwest: The city needs water. According to the Texas Tribune, the city is on pace to run out of water by the end of the decade, if new water sources are not established.[45] And, as time runs out to either adapt demand or increase supply, desalination plants, potentially costing cost almost one billion dollars to construct, increasingly appear to be a promising option.[46]

Stakeholder opinions on marine desalination also complicate the situation. Environmentalists want to stymie desalination to prevent the growth of industry in the city.[47] Scientists are concerned that the brine issue has not been properly addressed.[48] City leaders want to begin construction on the plants they’ve promised their residents.[49] And developers want to capitalize on the city’s, and state’s, growing need for water.[50] The agencies’ showdown will help determine which stakeholders get what they want, and which are left in the salt.


Alisha Adams is an attorney in the Environmental and Legislative section of Jackson Walker’s Austin office. She focuses on permitting and water matters, including real estate developers and special utility districts and counsels clients on transactional and regulatory issues before the Public Utility Commission of Texas.


Emma Edmund is a 2L from Tampa, Florida. She attended Northwestern University and joined TELJ her 1L fall. Emma has long been interested in environmental law, especially water quality and ownership issues. In addition to TELJ, she also worked at UT’s environmental law clinic.


[1]      Erin Douglas, EPA May Try to Block What Could Be the First Seawater Desalination Plant Built in Texas, Tex. Trib. (Sept. 22, 2022, 2:00 PM),

[2]      Id.; 33 U.S.C. § 1344(c) (1987).

[3]      Douglas, supra note 1.

[4]      Letter from Earthea Nance, Reg’l Adm’r, Region 6, Env’t Prot. Agency, to Jon Niermann, Chairman, Off. of Comm’rs, Tex. Comm’n on Env’t Quality (Sept. 2, 2022), https://

[5]      Desalination Facts, Tex. Water Dev. Bd., facts.asp (last visited Aug. 2, 2023).

[6]      Desal FAQs: Common Questions About Water Desalination, Tex. Desalination Ass’n, https://www.,a%20day%20for% 20south%20Texas (last visited Aug. 2, 2023).

[7]      Desalination Facts, supra note 5.

[8]      Id.

[9]      Id.

[10]     Douglas, supra note 1.

[11]     Id.; Desalination Facts, supra note 5; see also Press Release, Corpus Christi Polymers, (July 18, 2022) (noting that the company plans to use marine desalination for industrial, not drinking water, purposes).

[12]     Desalination Facts, supra note 5.

[13]     Id.

[14]     Towards Sustainable Desalination, U.N. Env’t Programme (May 2, 2019), news-and-stories/story/towards-sustainable-desalination#:~:text=Brine%20production%20and%20high %2Denergy,associated%20with%20negative%20environmental%20impacts.

[15]     See, e.g., Dylan Baddour, Corpus Christi Sold Its Water to Exxon, Gambling on Desalination. So Far, It Is Losing the Bet., Tex. Trib. (Nov. 4, 2022, 5:00 AM), 04/texas-corpus-christi-water-desalination/.

[16]     Id.

[17]     Letter from Jordan Furnans, LREWater, LLC, to Sarah L. Garza, Dir. of Env’t Plan. and Compliance, Port of Corpus Christi (Oct. 21, 2019) DischargeModelingReport_10212019_Final.pdf.

[18]     Baddour, supra note 15.

[19]     See id.; David L. Chandler, Turing Desalination Waste into a Useful Resource, MIT News (Feb. 13, 2019),

[20]     See Brian F. O’Neill, Desalination As a New Frontier of Environmental Justice Struggle: A Dialogue with Oscar Rodriguez and Andrea León-Grossman, 34 Capitalism Nature Socialism 107 (2023).

[21]     Letter from Earthea Nance, supra note 4.

[22]     O’Neill, supra note 20, at 118–120.

[23]     Id.

[24]     Letter from Charles Maguire, Dir., Water Div., Env’t Prot. Agency, to Earl Lott, Dir., Off. of Water, Tex. Comm’n on Env’t Quality (Sept. 20, 2021), https://static.texastribune. org/media/files/aabea6460e4a6f171cdcdf5af0fc4ad7/epacorrespondancetceq2021.pdf?_ga=2.221275608.1127814289.1677717792-137252328.1667314026.

[25]     Letter from Earthea Nance, supra note 4.

[26]     Id. (noting that going forward, the EPA believes all desalination facilities should be classified as major facilities, given that they discharge process wastewater).

[27]     40 C.F.R. § 122.2 (2023).

[28]     Letter from Earthea Nance, supra note 4.

[29]     Id.

[30]     Permit Limits – Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET), Env’t Prot. Agency, permit-limits-whole-effluent-toxicity-wet (last updated Oct. 3, 2022).

[31]     Letter from Earthea Nance, supra note 4.

[32]     Permit Limits – TBELS and WQBELs, Env’t Prot. Agency, (last updated Oct. 3, 2022).

[33]     Letter from Earthea Nance, supra note 4.

[34]     Id.

[35]     Dylan Baddour, Black Residents in Corpus Christi File a Civil Rights Complaint to Stop Texas’ First Desalination Plant, Tex. Trib. (Oct. 29, 2022, 12:00 PM), 29/texas-corpus-christi-hillcrest-desalination-plant/.

[36]     Chase Rogers, Public Raises Concerns on Corpus Christi Plastic Plant’s Marine Desalination Plans, Caller Times (Feb. 24, 2023, 11:33 AM), 24/public-raises-concerns-on-corpus-christi-plastic-plants-desalination-plans/69925201007/.

[37]     Id.

[38]     Id.

[39]     Id.

[40]     Id.

[41]     Id.

[42]     Alejandra Martinez, Environmental Advocates Push Feds to Investigate Texas’ Enforcement of Water Quality, Tex. Trib. (Feb. 1, 2023, 4:00 PM),

[43]     Id.

[44]     Id.

[45]     Douglas, supra note 1.

[46]     Id.

[47]     Id.

[48]     Id.

[49]     Id.

[50]     Id.