New Smyrna may tap into Atlantic for drinking water

By Ludmilla Lelis
Sentinel Staff Writer

January 12, 2003

NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- Not too long ago, desalting the sea to make drinking water seemed a far-fetched idea.

Removing the salt was too expensive for communities capable of tapping the underground aquifer for water that is not only cheap, but also reliable.

In the future, well water won't be enough, so New Smyrna Beach leaders are proposing a bold step.

The small coastal city could build East Central Florida's first major desalination plant, capable of producing 25 million gallons of drinking water a day from the Atlantic Ocean. That would be enough to supply about half the average amount of water that all of Volusia County uses now.

The city could follow the lead of the Tampa Bay area, New Smyrna Beach Mayor James Vandergrifft said.

This month, Tampa area residents will be drinking water from their new $110 million facility, which is North America's largest desalination plant. No other plant on the continent can desalt as large an amount -- 25 million gallons -- of drinking water.

For decades, the Tampa Bay area has experienced a water crisis that has led to water wars among neighboring cities and counties.

Under a mandate to reduce the water being pumped from wells, the local water authority, Tampa Bay Water, opted for other sources of water, including desalination.

A water shortage is predicted in Volusia County, and some leaders see desalination in the county's future. Vandergrifft said officials in the county have been very interested in the potential plant.

"It will take a lot to make it work, but if we can get others to join us, we can relieve the groundwater supply and help everyone in the long run," he said.

Vandergrifft said there are still unanswered questions about a potential New Smyrna plant, including how to get the estimated $110 million needed to build it and what would be done with the leftover brine.

Some leaders think the project should be overseen by a new water authority being developed in Volusia County.

Barbara Vergara, who oversees water supply management at the St. Johns River Water Management District, said it is time for cities in Central Florida to look at new sources of water, and she praised New Smyrna's initiative.

"We're at the point where we can see the end of permitting [of wells] from the Floridan aquifer," Vergara said. "We're actually behind the curve on these projects, because it can take 10 years to develop a plant. People should be investigating them now."

New Smyrna Beach already has the perfect location for a potential plant, said Ron Vaden, director of the city's utilities commission.

The city has a 60-acre industrial site on the north end of the city, buffered from homes and next to a power plant that could provide electricity.

Most important, the land, on the shores of the Indian River, is close to Ponce de Leon Inlet and would require only a short pipeline to get ocean water.

"If you look at the entire coast of Volusia County, there's really no site like this," Vaden said.

Before Tampa Bay's plant, the high cost of desalination prevented most communities from building such plants. Desalinated water has typically cost other water utilities $4 to $6 per 1,000 gallons, compared with well water, which usually costs less than a dollar for 1,000 gallons.

New technology has made desalinated water cheaper, said Timothy DeFoe, project development director for Poseidon Resources, the Connecticut company that designed the Tampa Bay plant.

Tampa Bay's plant will produce water at an average of $2 for 1,000 gallons.

The price is still higher than well water, but the desalinated water will make up only 10 percent of the region's water needs.

Most customers will see a modest increase -- averaging less than $10 per household per year -- for their water bill, Tampa officials said.

Besides the cost, one of the biggest problems with desalination is the leftover brine.

In Tampa Bay, the salt and other nutrients and minerals cleared from the water will be put back into the bay, diluted with water discharged from an adjacent power plant, DeFoe said.

That procedure has been approved by environmental agencies and was found in laboratory tests to be safe for wildlife, he said.

Save Our Bays, Air and Canals, an organization of residents, is skeptical that such a plan is environmentally sound.

Barbara Murphy, a co-founder of the group, said Tampa Bay doesn't flush often enough to adequately get rid of salt and other nutrients, and making the brine more concentrated and thus potentially damagingthe environment.

"We're not opposed to desal, because the world is going to have to have desal," Murphy said. "But you have to watch where you put the brine."

New Smyrna Beach officials aren't sure what to do with the brine from a potential desalination plant.

Local environmentalist Lee Bidgood hopes officials are cautious about such a project.

"I'm generally inclined to look at other options first before we should go ahead and drink the ocean," Bidgood said. "I need to know more information about it."