BOCA CHICA BEACH, Texas (Border Report) — The waters of South Bay range from a few inches to just algae-strewn muddy flats, depending if rain falls on this remote section of South Texas just miles from the Mexico border.
Several endangered species of birds and sea turtles call South Bay home, a protected estuary located at the tip of the Lugana Madre overlooking South Padre Island.
It’s a hyper-saline system, one of the few such bays in the world, and was named the state’s first coastal preserve nearly 40 years ago.
But engineers and rocket scientists and a growing number of others from SpaceX now also call this area home. And as SpaceX’s Starbase South Texas launch facility continues to grow, so do its needs.
That’s why SpaceX has asked Texas for permission to dump up to 200,000 gallons of treated waste and sewage water per day into South Bay.
According to a permit application that Space Exploration Technologies Corporation has filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the company plans to “reuse the reclaimed water on site as much as possible” or “utilize all treated water as reclaimed water.”
“In the unlikely event that 100% reuse cannot be accomplished, the reclaimed water will be discharged to segment #2493 – South Bay.”
TCEQ currently is taking comments on its website regarding SpaceX’s application for a domestic wastewater permit.
TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Ricky Richter told Border Report on Thursday that “the application from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is pending and is currently in technical review.”
Comments can be left at the agency’s website at TCEQ.Texas.Gov. Include permit number: WQ0016342001.
As of Thursday, there were over 155 comments, mostly opposed, citing environmental and health concerns for wildlife and communities in the vicinity.
“The health and well being of the residents in the communities in proximity to South Bay that depend on and enjoy its vital waters will be severely affected,” one person wrote.
“As a taxpayer, I strongly oppose TCEQ approving any discharge permits of wastewater into this local area,” another wrote.
“I would like to feel confident when I go to visit my daughter that the water I’m swimming in and the food I’m eating from those waters are not CONTAMINATED. You have got to be kidding me that anyone would even imagine that that was OK to do,” said another.
Mary Angela Branch, a 67-year-old retired Realtor, has been leading the opposition. She is a board member with the nonprofit group Save RGV, and has been instrumental in getting the permit documents circulated online.
“The ecosystem here is shallow oyster beds, larvae beds. It’s a dolphin nursery and it supports every life form in this area – migratory birds and year-round birds. This eco-system will be destroyed by the nutrients and algal growth from treated wastewater,” Branch told Border Report as she walked along the bay’s banks this week.
“We’re against any discharge into South Bay, any treated effluent is bad for this area,” Branch said. “I don’t think people realize how uniquely sensitive this bay is. It’s a very shallow-water, hyper-saline bay that affects the Laguna Madre, which is also the sixth-largest hyper-saline bay in the world.”
Hyper-saline means the water salinity is more than 3.5%, which is more than the ocean.
That allows for the development of certain and unique species, like newborn dolphins, who can’t float and need the salinity for buoyancy.
It is also a habitat for dozens of endangered and threatened species like the piping plover and red knot birds, as well as the Atlantic green sea turtle and loggerhead turtles.
“All of those are threatened and they need to be protected,” Branch said.
SpaceX says it needs the option to discharge into South Bay because it is expanding in size and scope.
There are over 500 employees currently at SpaceX’s South Texas facility, according to the TCEQ application. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
They are adding administrative buildings and building launch structures at Starbase, which spans from the banks of the South Bay on its north, to the outskirts of the sand dunes of Boca Chica Beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
A park full of Airstream trailers sits atop what looks like well-manicured putting greens. Another group of trailers sits on dirt, and new houses and duplexes are going up overlooking South Bay.
Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife, says discharge into the bay should not be allowed.
“It’s just such a bad idea for so many reasons,” Chapman told Border Report.
He also sent in comments to TCEQ, on behalf of his organization, and noted that nowhere in the application form did SpaceX mention the endangered species that live in the area, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife tracts that abut the area, or the coastal preserve.
“This permit should allow for zero discharge. Any effluent that cannot be reused should be trucked to the Harlingen wastewater facilities which SpaceX has been doing with all its domestic wastewater for the past several years,” he wrote.
According to the application, SpaceX since 2021 has contracted with a company to haul its wastewater to a facility in Harlingen, Texas, over 40 miles away.
Why they do not want to continue that is unclear.
Chapman pointed out that in the application, the company indicated there were no seagrasses, however, he says there are.
Border Report has reached out to SpaceX with questions on why they want to discharge into South Bay, and if they are concerned about hurting the environment. This story will be updated if information is received.
Tony Reisinger, Cameron County marine extension agent and the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension and Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M University agent, told Border Report that he is uncertain exactly what the effects such discharge would have on the bay.
He urged further study into whether adding treated freshwater could decrease salinity, or cause other changes.
He said South Bay is a rare hyper-saline environment. “Laguna Madre is only one of a few hyper-saline environments in the world. It’s where evaporation exceeds the water amount that is supplying it,” he said.
As such, the edges of the bay are often just muddy tidal flats where algae grows and helps to feed many of the migratory birds.
Depth levels can change dramatically from high tide to low tide, but generally speaking the bay is very shallow, he said.
Reisinger also questioned why SpaceX wants to discharge into the bay, rather than on the south side, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Rio Grande — an area that naturally has much more freshwater, and might not be as affected.
“This is home and this is beautiful and there’s nothing like it,” Branch said. “It’s ours. It’s our land. … We contend this entire area should be a no-discharge zone. Period.”
Calvin Wehrle, of Galveston, comes often to watch SpaceX activities. He sits on a chair outside his brown truck that bears the words “BASE CAMP ZERO.”
And he passes out small gifts to children who come, he says.
This includes thumb-sized tiles encased in little plastic packets, which he said are actual tiles that broke off from a SpaceX rocket test launch.
He says SpaceX is doing so much to improve space technology for the world, and he says that is inspiring the next generation of students.
“It’s huge what this means to our children,” Wehrle told Border Report. “I think Texas is being real hospitable for their growth and I highly support that.”
Save RGV says comments to TCEQ must be received by Nov. 7.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.