Back in July 2018, eight research teams across Texas A&M campuses were awarded X-Grants of close to $7 million. Of the $7 million, $1.5 million was awarded to a team led by Wendy Jepson from the College of Geoscience and included law professor Gabriel Eckstein to study the issues surrounding sustainable freshwater systems in urban areas.
Five of Eckstein’s upper level students--Alexis Long, Elizabeth Ramey, Daniel Howell, Seth Boettcher, and Heather Dyer--were recruited to participate in the joint collaboration between Texas A&M School of Law and researchers at TAMU’s College Station campus. The project at the law school is being managed by Professor Eckstein.
This semester, students were asked to investigate and compare laws and regulations surrounding authorization for desalination and wastewater recycling operations in Perth, Australia; Tel Aviv, Israel; San Antonio, Texas; El Paso, Texas; and San Diego, California. The final work product is expected to evaluate the various legal and regulatory challenges and opportunities of such technologies and water sources.
The students engaged in the project have identified a number of major hurdles to pursuing desalination and wastewater recycling initiatives. Some regions have experienced pushback from the local community due to negative connotations commonly associated with desalinated water (including unsightly industrial facilities and concerns for the environment) and recycled water (the so-called “yuck factor”).
Yet other regions have welcomed the benefits derived from such plants, namely, clean water for various uses. For example, El Paso city officials had data going back to the 1980s indicating that natural freshwater resources soon would become a scarce commodity, and city officials recognized the need to pursue alternative sources. Having a legal framework in place that facilitated development of desalinated and recycled water has effectively prevented the city from running out of fresh water.
Boettcher explains how this project provides a beneficial opportunity to learn about the challenges other regions face when dealing with water scarcity: “Although permitting schemes are difficult to navigate, they are manageable, especially in the U.S. But many regions outside of the U.S. seemingly will require greater guidance in order to set up and run these plants.”
“I saw first-hand how water scarcity is dealt with in Israel,” adds Ramey. “Although water scarcity is a difficult challenge to deal with, it can be addressed by a well-thought out plan, as in Israel.” Ramey participated in the 2018 Texas A&M Law Global Programs field study “Israel: Water, Energy and Dispute Resolution.”
Based on the students’ research thus far, the most difficult aspect in setting up permitting schemes appears to be addressing the public perception of manufactured water—especially recycled wastewater—and obtaining the necessary funding.
Once the case studies are finalized, they will be combined with related case studies being prepared by other researchers in College Station. In addition to presenting the case studies at an upcoming conference and publication in a professional journal, the goal is to use them as a basis for further research into the viability of desalination and recycling technologies and methodologies for providing urban communities with freshwater resources. The project is expected to continue through 2021.