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
“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
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
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
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.