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Brockton, MA ponders desalination

BY ROBERT P. MADER

BOSTON — When one thinks of drought, Western states usually come to mind first. But some communities in Massachusetts are facing water shortages so severe that they are thinking about, hiring engineering services for or are getting ready to build saltwater desalination plants.

The Boston Sunday Globe newspaper reported that Brockton, Mass., might start construction of a $40 million plant as early as September. The Associated Press reported that Swansea has told the state that it wants to build a plant to desalinate water from a tidal river, and Braintree and Hull plan engineering studies.

“We are out of water, we are looking east,” Robert Marquis, water superintendent for Swansea told the Associated Press. “When there is a drought, you still have the ocean.”

Massachusetts’ water shortages have been under the radar for a long time, said Hugh Kelleher, executive manager of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association of Greater Boston. Kelleher recalled that when he built a carwash 10 years ago, he drilled a well — right by downtown Boston — because he could save the owner a lot of money. The water wasn’t considered potable, but it was good enough to wash cars.

“We have, fortunately, thanks to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, a terrific source of water here in Greater Boston,” Kelleher said. “But costs are rising and when you get to outlying towns that are not part of MWRA, some of them are really facing serious problems.”

Part of the problem is that some of the communities, such as Brockton, have never had adequate water storage dating back to the 1800s, Kelleher said. Increasing development along the Ipswich River has put so much demand on it that parts of the river have run dry in past summers.

Water conservation would help, he said, but will not, in itself, solve the problem. In addition, costs for desalination plants, basically big reverse osmosis plants, have been dropping rapidly. Tidal rivers are the best choice for locating plants because the water is less salty and the briny wastewater can be discharged with less impact on the native habitat in and along the estuary.

“Down in Swansea, that’s where they seem to be pretty far along, although I haven’t seen any designs,” Kelleher said. “Brockton is actually building their plant in another town. The towns are very small and water issues don’t pay attention to town borders. Some of them have reservoirs in town and others tap into reservoirs in other towns. Brockton is talking about building their plant 18 miles away in Taunton.”

Boston has had no problems with water because of a Depression-era project, the Quabbin Reservoir. The reservoir was constructed by moving the residents of Quabbin in central Massachusetts and flooding the valley. An aqueduct was built, some of it underground and some aboveground, to bring water by gravity 80 to 100 miles to downtown Boston.

“Boston water is fabulous,” Kelleher said. “It’s clean, fresh, has great taste and whoever came up with this idea of Quabbin was a genius.”

The only problem was that there was a lone aqueduct, a concern particularly after 9/11. The state has since built a second tunnel with a huge underground storage facility and a purification plant that opened last year.

Kelleher’s contractor members have worked on many water and water treatment facilities for the MWRA, including treatment and purification plants and the $4.7 billion Deer Island wastewater treatment plant.

Desalination efforts are gaining traction in other areas of the country, reported consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, especially in Florida, Texas, California, New Mexico and Georgia.

New analysis from Frost & Sullivan of the U.S. desalination plant market states that the market reached $237.3 million in 2000, but stuttered slightly in 2001 and 2002, reaching $189 million and $80.4 million, respectively. The market jumped in 2003, however, with the seawater plant in Tampa Bay, Fla., coming online. Future years are expected to see sustained growth as witnessed throughout the 1990s, though it is likely that the Tampa plant is a temporary spike in the market.

“Based on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California still all draw from the Colorado River,” said Frost & Sullivan analyst Matthew Barker. “Although various amendments have been made to the compact over the years, the allocation remains virtually unchanged, despite the region’s continuing population growth.”

Florida, as many other coastal states, faces drought conditions, saltwater intrusion and a rapidly growing population; all factors are compounding the already stressed water supplies. To combat the problem, Florida is turning to desalination, building one of the largest plants in the United States in Tampa Bay.

One factor giving some in the industry pause to adopt this method is the cost involved, the consulting firm noted. Desalination costs more than treating relatively salt-free surface water and groundwater, but the growing demand for fresh water in many areas of the nation due to drought, water shortages, population increases and the desire for higher quality water has spurred unprecedented interest in the process of desalting brackish.

Perhaps the most significant and far-reaching restraint in the U.S. desalination market is environmental concern, Frost & Sullivan said. Environmental lobby groups and public opposition can be a powerful tool against the development of desalination plants. Desalination technologies contain no fatal flaws, however, and desalination plants have a substantial history of environmentally safe operations. But a need exists to identify, understand and address environmental concerns that are increasingly being raised by the general public, Barker said.