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Seabrook takes step toward desalinating water


By Angeljean Chiaramida
Staff writer

SEABROOK Chronic water supply problems are pushing the town along on a process started three years ago to study whether Seabrook should become one of the first communities in New England to tap the ocean for drinking water.

Desalination is feasible but not cheap. However, as ground water levels drop, it is becoming more attractive, Water Department Superintendent Michael Jeffers said. Other communities, such as Hull, are also considering the process. There will be "a lot of eyes on Seabrook" as it takes on this research, he said.

Meeting yesterday, selectmen awarded a $49,000 contract to Portsmouth's Wright-Pierce consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study and cost analysis that will judge if desalination can work for Seabrook and at what cost.

Consultants will determine the best place to draw saltwater and build a desalinization plant. The study will also determine what licenses and permits are required.

The study is one in a series of preliminary steps in determining if desalination will work for Seabrook, Jeffers said.

Once thought prohibitively expensive, new technology has helped reduce the cost of desalination, especially if enough water is produced to sell to others. Seabrook could offset its costs by allowing surrounding towns to tap the supply.

In the desalination process, salt or brackish water from the ocean, Blackwater River or a salt marsh would be purified through reverse osmosis, in which saltwater is forced through a fine membrane to remove unwanted materials.

"It's like a spaghetti strainer," Jeffers explained, "but an incredibly, incredibly small one."

Only a few communities in the United States use desalinization. Some are in California and Florida. Off Rhode Island's coast, Block Island uses the process. Some countries in the Middle East tap ocean water.

The town is conducting another feasibility study for water diversion. In diversion, water would be skimmed off a local river during spring high water and held in a reservoir for purification. Up to 500 million gallons might be available annually through diversion.

"Ideally, it wouldn't hurt to do both," Jeffers said. "Seabrook would be sitting pretty then. We would have water to bail out others (towns) who need water, and Seabrook could make a little money to recoup its costs."

Seabrook is paying for these studies with money set aside more than three years ago when voters allocated $3 million to finding and developing new water sources.

At the time, the Seacoast region was undergoing a drought, with water bans in place in most towns. Seabrook has had problems with water shortages most summers. Voters saw the desalination and diversion processes as ways to end problems with the water supply.

Water meters were also installed using the money from this warrant question. Before then, water bills were flat annual rates, giving no monetary incentive for conservation.

Selectmen's choice of Wright-Pierce over the other applicant, Earth Tech, came with recommendations from both Jeffers and Town Manager Fred Welch. Wright-Pierce's proposal was $22,000 more than Earth Tech's, but both Jeffers and Welch noted the experience of engineers at Wright-Pierce and their familiarity with Seabrook and federal and state agencies.

Jeffers, 53, of Windham, N.H., was hired in October as Seabrook's water superintendent. Jeffers has degrees in civil engineering and environmental sciences. For three years before taking the job in Seabrook, Jeffers worked under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant for the Rhode Island Department of Health overseeing a study of water supply.

The Water Department was formerly coupled with the Sewer Department under the supervision of Warner Knowles. Selectmen decided to split the departments more than a year ago because the joint responsibility had grown so large. Knowles has remained as sewer superintendent.