Desal in South Texas

The Effluence of Affluence

Desalination and Extractive Industry on the Texas Coast

Holden Hopkins

February 4, 2024

In July of 2015, the City of Corpus Christi, Texas issued a warning of possible E. coli contamination in the water supply. As a result, citizens were advised to either buy their own bottled water or to bring all tap water to a rolling boil for at least one minute before use. This notice was lifted after two days. 

In September of 2015, two months later, a second water boil advisory was issued due to a low disinfectant measurement. Officials at the city could not verify whether chlorine was present in sufficient quantities throughout the system to ensure safe drinking water. As a result, the job of sanitizing water was passed down the pipeline to residents: either boil it yourself, or buy more bottles. After eleven days without safe access to tap water, the city received the all-clear. 

In May of 2016, water tests revealed the presence of non-harmful bacteria and low disinfectant levels. Within a week, the city had issued its third water boil notice in less than a year, this one lasting for nine days. Residents were outraged–how could a city of 350,000 have infrastructure so woefully unequipped to provide basic services? City government was listening. There would be accountability—city manager Ron Olson resigned, plans were in the works to ensure this would not happen again. This could not happen again. 

On December 14, 2016, it happened again. The city announced that all tap water was unfit for any use due to industrial contamination from Ergon Asphalt & Emulsion, Inc. While the previous water notices had been orders to boil water, this was an outright ban. The industrial chemicals in the water could not be boiled away. 

For a coastal region whose identity is so tied to the water, this sudden and repeated water insecurity was especially jarring. Yet even when the pipes had been patched and the water was flowing clean, that fear would not be washed away. In the years to come, it would persist, providing useful fodder for special interests with an agenda to promote. 

Corpus Christi is the county seat of Nueces County and the largest city in Texas’ Coastal Bend, an eleven-county region situated on the Gulf of Mexico and its various bays and inlets. As with most coastal regions, fishing and tourism are central economic sectors in the Corpus area. 

However, the true juggernaut in the Coastal Bend is the petrochemical industry. Dominating the skyline as well as the economy—with a local GDP of around $28 billion, industrial investments regularly average around $13 billion annually—fossil fuels have become a part of life on the South Texas coast.