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Massachusetts Desalting Plants Worry Environmentalists

BOSTON - More towns in Massachusetts are considering plans to build facilities that purify salt water from the Atlantic Ocean as a way to address chronic water shortages, but environmentalists are worried that delicate aquatic ecosystems may be damaged.

"We are out of water, we are looking east," said Robert Marquis, water superintendent for Swansea, which recently notified the state that it wants to build a $16 million plant to desalinate water from the tidal Palmer River. "When there is a drought, you still have the ocean."

The Boston Sunday Globe reports that Brockton may start construction of a $40 million salt water purification plant as early as September. Hull residents will be asked this month to authorize a $280,000 study to determine whether a desalination plant would lower the town's high water rates, and Braintree residents set aside $75,000 for a similar study. Several North Shore towns also are looking at the possibility.

"Supplies of water have dwindled down to a precious few, and there are no other ones to be developed in eastern Massachusetts," said John Murphy of Hanson, Murphy and Associates, an engineering firm involved in the construction of Brockton's plant.

Conservation efforts are a much better way to deal with the region's water woes, said Christopher Killian, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.

"We don't need to be building any of these facilities," he said.

Many of the plants are proposed for tidal estuaries where environmentalists are worried that powerful intake pipes sucking in millions of gallons of water, as well as salty discharge, could upset the ecosystems.

Public policy specialists are alarmed because since some of the plants could be privately owned, public water supplies could be sold to the highest bidder.

New filtering technology is making the once impractical and expensive process cheaper. There are less than 100 desalination plants in the nation, and most serve small communities, specialists said. The only desalination plant in New England serves the small community of MacMahan Island.

Larger plants are being built in California, and the nation's largest, in Tampa, went on line last year.

Brockton has one of the most severe water problems in the state, woes that date to the 1800s and a lack of storage. The city levies fines of up to $200 for residents who disobey lawn watering laws.

The city has pursued a desalination plant for 10 years, but permitting delays, opposition and financial problems have always stood in the way.

But the proposal, to be built in Dighton on the Taunton River, recently received a key state permit and now it could be supplying purified seawater in two years.

City officials dismiss worries about privatization because a 20-year contract ensures affordable rates and the new plant would merely supplement existing supplies.