Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Prisons as water hogs: Private facility in Waco would use 2.5 million gallons per month when full

A helpful reader sent me a public notice recently from the Waco Tribune Herald announcing that "The US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons (Bureau) is preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA) ... to assess the potential environmental impacts of contracting with a private contractor to house approximately 1,000 federal, low-security, adult male, non-US citizen, criminal aliens at a contractor-owned, contractor operated facility." They're assessing five sites, including two each in Texas and Louisiana: Beattyville, KY; Groesbeck, TX; Jonesboro, LA; Pine Prairie, LA, and Waco, TX, and are soliciting comments dues Feb. 28, 2011.

I'd never seen an Environmental Assessment for a prison, so I asked for a copy and BOP graciously sent me one. I was particularly interested in the Waco site, which is a speculative private prison built with county-backed bonds that's turned into a full-blown (if self-inflicted) financial catastrophe for McLennan County.

One seldom-discussed issue surrounding prisons that's lightly touched upon in the EA is the fact that they're water hogs. In Abilene, Walker County, Anderson County, and several other jurisdictions, for example, prisons are the single largest water users. So I was interested to read that average water use at the Waco unit would be 82 gallons per inmate per day, or 82,000 gallons per day at full capacity or 2.5 million gallons per month. (Groesbeck, TX, by contrast, somewhat inexplicably claims it can serve the same number of inmates using just 10,140 gallons of water per day, which seems strange since all the other applicants would use water at 6-8 times that rate.)

But there's not a lot of extra water to go around in McLennan County. In a story last year, the Waco Trib reported ("Water issues loom large for McLennan County area communities," April 18, 2010, behind paywall) that "McLennan County’s new groundwater district is trying to fight the overpumping and decline of the Trinity Aquifer." At current use levels, they said, "groundwater would still be available, but costly to pump," forcing more jurisdictions to use surface water from Lake Waco, an operation run by the city, which is where the private prison in question gets its water.

Drawing down an extra 2.5 million gallons per month from the river, at the least, would further drain scarce water supplies, even though the EA says "According to the City of Waco, they can accommodate the anticipated water needs of the facility; therefore no impacts to the utility would occur." By contrast, reported the Trib last year, water in Lake Waco is for the most part already bought and paid for: Most observers "doubt there will be much surplus water to spare, if any, once the historical use permits are granted." It's hard to reconcile these assessments: "Water is scarce," "We have plenty of water" - these local government analyses seem almost purely situational, saying whatever they think their audience-of-the-moment wants to hear to achieve this or that short-term goal. In that environment, it's hard to gauge the truth.

The EA says "present [water] facilities are sufficient to provide for this facility," referring to a 6-inch water main connecting it to the city's system. But in the medium to long-term McLennan County projects a shortage of both ground and surface water that the new federal prisoners would clearly exacerbate. I wonder if that sort of analysis figures into the feds' thinking about where to place such facilities, and if not why not?


Ed James Smith said...

The facility does not meet the minimum specifications set out in the RFP, which is a minimum of 1,000 beds, with the ability to house within the same fence up to 15% more than that. The new jail has been rated at 816 beds, with possible arrangement to 832 beds. Any more than that would put it out of compliance with standards.

It is also not well designed, such that to monitor portions of the facility, staff have to remain standing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, Ed, in the EA they're basing their estimates on 1,000 inmates, though from my understanding you're right about the stated capacity.

Not sure where they think they'll stick those extra 184 inmates. ;)