Treating brackish water for human consumption “can be done and be done affordably” in New Mexico and other parts of the country, says Mike Hightower, water researcher at Sandia National Laboratories.

“The cost of treating ocean and brackish water has fallen enough that it can be comparable to the expenses associated with developing new freshwater supplies,” Hightower says. “It used to cost 50 cents per thousand gallons of water to supply freshwater. That is now up to $3 to $4 per thousand of gallons of water – due largely to the fact that fresh water near cities is generally already being used and utilities frequently have to pump water long distances, often as far as 100 miles, to get new freshwater supplies. This raises the cost of new water supplies and the associated price of water.”

At the same time, the cost of treating saline and brackish water has come down – to $2 to $3 per thousand gallons for water being treated at the ocean, and $4 to $6 per thousand gallons for inland treatment.

“By the mid ’90s, you started to see the increasing costs of freshwater intersecting with the reduced costs of treating saline and brackish water,” Hightower says.

It’s unlikely, however, that future water bills will be tripling or quadrupling because water that has been desalinized through processes such as reverse osmosis often will be only used to supplement current fresh water resources, not as the sole drinking water source for communities. It will become one of many tools in the toolbox, such as efficiency improvements and wastewater reuse, to meet future water supply demands.

The use of desalinized water is growing more popular in places like Alamogordo, N.M., and El Paso, Texas, two communities that sit in the Tularosa Basin, which contains essentially an underground lake with brackish water that is 2,000 parts per million to 4,000 parts per million (ppm) total dissolved solids (TDS), better known as salt. The most easily treatable form of brackish ground water has from 2,000 ppm to 5,000 ppm TDS, so the ground water in the Tularosa Basin falls well within the limits.

El Paso recently constructed the world’s largest inland desalination plant that produces 25 percent of the city’s water, or about 30 million gallons of water a day. Other communities in the Tularosa Basin that could use this brackish ground water include White Sands Missile Range, Carrizozo, Corona, Chaparral, N.M., and Horizon City, Texas. Horizon City already has a working plant, and Alamogordo already has obtained water rights to start a desalination plant there. Alamogordo also is the location of the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility that opened last year to support the research and development of new desalination and concentrate management approaches for brackish ground water.

Brackish ground water identified under Albuquerque’s West Mesa recently has received a lot of attention, and studies and testing currently are underway to assess the costs and sustainability of this potential new water supply. However, the water is more than 10,000 ppm TDS, much higher than normally considered for cost-effective treatment, and its potential is being assessed carefully.

Hightower says a 1974 report, “New Mexico Water Resources Assessment for Planning Purposes,” estimated there are 15 billion acre-feet of ground water in New Mexico. Seventy-five percent of that is brackish.

“The problem with that estimate is that the brackish water estimates include water down to 4,000 to 5,000 feet below the surface,” he says. “Freshwater is generally less than 500 feet below the surface. It is easier to get the freshwater, and no one has ever really done much pumping of the brackish waters 4,000 to 5,000 feet deep.

“We may be significantly overestimating the amount of recoverable brackish water – water that is easy to get to and use,” Hightower says. “Some analyses suggest that the amount we can recover is only a fraction of the initial estimate. We won’t know until more testing is done. If it’s not economically recoverable, the water will not help us much and should not be counted on.”

According to Hightower, the question frequently asked about desalination: “Is desalination a silver bullet or pipe dream?”

“It’s not a silver bullet and definitely not a pipe dream, either,” he explains. “It is a reality. In the U.S., desalination treatment has increased by a factor of four over the past 15 years. Desalination is used in nearly all 50 states and in many countries all over the world. It is accepted, and can be a cost-effective approach to supplement current fresh water resources and meet our future water supply needs. But there are many issues, such as the environmentally sound disposal of the generated concentrate from desalination, the sustainability of the supply, and the overall treatment costs, that have to be carefully evaluated when looking to develop and implement desalination, especially for inland brackish ground water resources like we have in New Mexico.”