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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

Lynn Teger September 20, 2012 at 12:04 PM
Agreed. Stop this project now!
laurie seeman September 20, 2012 at 12:11 PM
To All who have just read this excellent piece and want to know what to do to make sure that costly desalinated drinking water does not happen on your watch, you can join the good people of the Rockland Water Coalition. We have put the brakes on the proposal and need more Rockland support for our work ahead. We meet in Nyack once a month. Visit www.NoDesal.com
mike sullivan September 20, 2012 at 12:43 PM
north rockland and rockland county need these taxes,jobs and we need this water
John Taggart September 20, 2012 at 01:23 PM
I think we need to see a cost analisis as to what replacing most of the water mains, secondarys, and most problamatic the privatly owned water lines that run to the individual buildings. Home and building owners are responsible for the piping from the road to the building. There has been alot of bashing of UW during this process. UW is a large employer here in Rockland. Rockland does a good job creating low end tee shirt sales, resturant, and landscape jobs. Here, due to opposition, we see bashing of the company as much as the project. United water is a union shop, meaning their workers are paid enough and covered enough be home owners and raise a family here. United water manages this and their water rates are still lower than Nyacks municipal water rates. Alot of people alot of DEMOCRATS have come out against this co. as French or lying or greedy but your bashing UNION WORKERS who are your neighbors and the union company that employs them at a lower cost than municipal. I hope some union workers can decide to vote against people that they've supported in the past only to find little support in return. Using the Hudson is an obvious choice if additional water is needed, endless supply, and no enviromental impact, already 14 existing plants on the river. Rockland has constantly grown and never concidered increasing any of its supplys
CR September 20, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Please let's not listen to the special interest groups on this issue.
Voice of Reason September 20, 2012 at 02:47 PM
Sounds like a typical kickback situation where someone is trying to make lots of money from this project as usual. We don't need it. We need to stop the greedy people from presenting rediculous projects that have only one interest in mind... Their pockets. And people always talk about jobs being created. How many unemployed people do you know that are capable of working in a water plant... Really... The corruption must stop now. I am so sick of it already.
John Taggart September 20, 2012 at 02:55 PM
So unemployed people only know how to flip burgers and cut grass ?
CR September 20, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Below are a few things to consider that the author left out of his piece: 1) All water systems lose water. A "normal" lost water percentage is between 15% and 20%, depending on where you are located. Here in the Northeast, water pipes are subject to repeated freezing and thawing year after year which puts tremendous strain on the system and results in higher main breaks (and therefore more lost water) than other parts of the country. Additionally, because of our dense population and amount of traffic traveling over the pipes, the system is subject to more stress from vibrations and that causes more breakage than in more rural areas. This “normal” level of lost water was not factored into the author’s opinion, but needs to be. 2) In the Northeast, because of our geography, when there are main breaks the water tends to sink and not come to the surface. This makes leaks much harder to detect than in areas that have sandy soil where leaks rise. Continued on next post....
CR September 20, 2012 at 03:30 PM
3) Replacing water mains is not without cost and disruptions to the public (this has not been factored into the author's figures either). 4) The water company was ORDERED to construct a long-term water project by the New York Public Service Commission. There were penalties the company would be liable for if it did not meet construction milestones. The Joint Proposal agreement between United Water and the Public Service Commission was also signed/approved by the County of Rockland, Ellen Jaffe and Chris St. Lawrence, among others. In that agreement, all parties acknowledged that there was a need to increase the water supply in the County. 5) The author states, “There are several options and alternatives that can provide additional water sources”, but conveniently doesn’t mention what they are. There were at least two other solutions analyzed; sewage reuse (yum!) and building a dam/reservoir, both of which were expected to cost much more than the Desal plant. Fact – There was an established need to increase the water supply in Rockland Fact – The water company was ordered to construct a long-term water project Fact – There were penalties if the company missed any milestones in the construction timeline What would you do if you were in the Company’s shoes? Just asking.
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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