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Opinion: Desal Plant Doesn't Add Up

A letter to the editor regarding the proposed Hudson River desalination plant.

To the editor:

Driving around town recently I’ve noticed the road signs imploring citizens to “Stop the Desal”. This is in reference to United Water’s (UW) proposal to construct a desalination plant in Haverstraw Bay, which according to a UW 2010 estimate could cost between $139 million and $189 million. Independent experts calculate the cost to be significantly higher once hidden factors are taken into consideration. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation is currently reviewing all comments and the larger questions of true cost are being asked. 

This got me thinking about the numbers behind this. As an engineer, I am naturally drawn to numbers and looking at things in an analytical light. While there are many technical reasons why desalination is not the most cost effective or environmentally sound water source, I want to focus purely on the numbers of what is at play.

United Water’s Annual Water Quality Report issued in May 2012 included some interesting statistics. On page three of this report UW states: “In 2011, United Water produced 10.63 billion gallons of water. We determined that 25 percent of the water we produced is non-revenue producing. This is water lost due to leaks, main breaks, under-registering meters, fire fighting, hydrant flushing and theft of service.” This is a rather interesting percentage. When you look at what that translates into you find the following:

  • 25% of 10.63 billion gallons is equal to 2.658 billion gallons for the year
  • Taking that 2.658 billion gallons of water and dividing it by 365 days (for a year) yields 7.28 million gallons of Wwater per day.
  • In 2011, United Water LOST 7.28 mILLION gallons of water per day. While a portion of that number is related to fire fighting, a larger percentage is related to leaks in pipes and water main breaks.

United Water’s proposed desalination plant at full build out is proposed to provide 7.5 million gallons of water per day. At United Water’s current annual lost water rate of 7.28 million gallons per day, the net increase from the proposed desalination plant would be approximately 219,000 gallons of water per day at a cost of between $139 million and $189 million (in 2010 dollars). So each gallon of water would cost between $634 and $862 per gallon. This would rival some of the most premium aged scotches available.

The United Water proposed desalination project does nothing to improve or enhance the existing water transmission/supply system. Instead it creates a brand new plant that does not currently exist that will provide an additional burden of infrastructure (pumps, pipes, controls, electrical equipment, buildings, etc.) that will have to be operated, maintained and replaced as part of a capital improvement program. Once it is built we are stuck with it and the operating costs forever. That means every 15 years or so the pumping systems, motors, controls, etc. will have to be upgraded at the cost of millions of dollars. All of this would be funded by us -- the rate payers.

In addition, pushing more water through the already aged system of pipes will likely result in yet more water main breaks and leaks. So, after spending close to $200 million dollars we may not have increased our water supply at all. Instead we are just trying to cover the losses of what United Water already “produces” or actually takes from the surrounding environment. This is United Water’s proposal instead of spending money on improving the existing infrastructure to prevent these unreasonable losses of a precious resource. What other business do you know of that can lose 25-percent of their product and still be profitable?

This does not make any mathematical sense at all. There are several options and alternatives that can provide additional water sources that would not include such a foolish use of rate payer dollars. Many of the alternatives would create construction jobs and if we invested more on fixing existing infrastructure would also result in more construction jobs. Let’s think about a more robust and sensible solution to our water needs and protect our existing infrastructure and environment.

It should not be forgotten that UW is a private company with a corporate interest; the goal is making profits, not to spend on improvements to existing infrastructure, leaving us poorly served. Maybe this is why Paris has elected to not renew their contract with Suez Environment (French parent company of United Water) and take back their public water supply to return to municipal ownership and operation.

-Rich Feminella, Upper Nyack

Smitty Chesterfield September 20, 2012 at 05:06 PM
of course st lawrence is for it. look at the exponential growth in monsey, new square, etc. without it, water supply wouldnt be an issue
Eve Sheridan September 20, 2012 at 07:06 PM
This letter makes good sense.
Eve Sheridan September 20, 2012 at 07:07 PM
laurie, your link is not working- get the site up so we can see it!
RCF September 22, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Actually, the "normal" lost water percentage is around 10-15%, so in 2011 UW lost an additional 10% or just under 3 MILLION gallons per day. It should also be noted 2011's water lost by UW was a 6% increase from what was listed in the DEIS. This combined with the Millions of Gallons per day of Excess water UW has improperly released to New Jersey for United Water of NJ users from Lake Deforest would result in ZERO need for a desalination plant. If one reads documentation by the American Water Works Association, they have conducted studies that indicate "There might have been a time when having a fair amount of "unaccounted for" water was pretty acceptable to water utilities.... Such practices are no longer accepted as best management of water resources." Failure to consider or address failing and aged infrastructure (such as water mains) is a foolish and will prove to be a costly decision. It is far more costly to conduct emergency repairs than to have planned, properly designed and bid replacement and rehabilitation projects. In response to wastewater reuse- the proposed desal plant would be taking Hudson River water as its source, which not only has sewage treatment plant outfalls, but is subject to illicit discharges, as well as sewage breaks discharge into it (there have been several in Tarrytown alone). If one reads the DEIS, the characteristics indicate presence of sewage in the River - so it is in effect wastewater reuse in an indirect way.
RCF September 22, 2012 at 03:42 PM
Political affiliation has nothing to do with this issue. The issue is why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that does not have buy in from the actual people have to drink this water and has not been independently proven to be the most economical or environmentally sound option - or even necessary. I am a union member and I am against desal. They are currently ZERO drinking water plants in brackish sections of the river and therefore there are ZERO desal plants currently on the river so a mention of other plants is not comparable. It is inaccurate to say there is "no environmental impact" to the proposed desal plant. There are the TREMENDOUS energy consumption aspects which will result in large greenhouse gas emissions (which is in direct conflict with the New York State's Executive Order 24 which mandates 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and 15% reductions in energy use by 2015), there is the sludge created from the process that has to be handled/dealt with, and negative impacts to aquatic life of Haverstraw Bay to name a few.

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