Newly-released study highlights flaws in United Water’s desal plan

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

New City – A press conference was held at the County Legislature building in New City on September 24 to present a new study critiquing the need for a desalination plant at Haverstraw Bay and presenting potential alternatives to drawing drinking water from the Hudson.

The study, conducted by adjunct associate professor at Cooper Union and former director of the New York City Water and Sewer system Albert F. Appleton, examined questions regarding demand for water, alternatives to desalination, the possibility of the plant becoming a “white elephant” and the due diligence of United Water’s proposal.

In sum, Appleton found United Water’s plan to be financially unsound and that Rockland’s water needs can be better accomplished with “demand side” solutions focusing on conserving extant resources rather than “supply side” solutions which merely increase the available water supply.

“Taking the 7.5 million gallons per day the desal plant would provide as a planning target, this report finds a combination of three demand side measures: 1. a better operating rule for the DeForest Resevoir, 2. Reducing water main leakage, and 3. Reducing consumer water use could provide 8.5 million gallons per day, in short more water faster and far more cheaply than the desal plant,” Appleton concluded in his report.

Appleton’s conclusions suggested United Water had not been particularly careful in its cost-benefit analyses. He found that rate increases resulting from the desal plant would likely double current water rates, pushing water use down to the point that the plant might not even be necessary.

In contrast, Appleton pointed out 7.75 million gallons of Lake DeForest water are pumped into New Jersey per day, much of it winding up as surplus water in the state. Rockland activists frequently cited the practice as an example of unnecessary water loss which could be remedied to great effect.

Appleton surmises that combining at least 4mgd of DeForest water diverted from New Jersey to Rockland with water system improvements to reduce water main loss by 3mgd and a 1.5mgd reduction in consumer water use through means such as lawn water management, Rockland could generate an additional 8.5mgd of water, more than satisfying its needs.

“Thus, there is a demand side alternative that can provide more water faster and at significantly smaller cost and rate impact and with many more additional benefits than the desal plant,” Appleton concluded.

Aside from demand side strategies, Appleton briefly mentions supply side strategies which might prove superior to desalination, including drawing water from Rockland’s well fields or tapping into surpluses from out-of-county reservoirs in New York or New Jersey.

The paper also examined the Public Service Commission’s position on water demand. Though it made no specific conclusions on need, it did question United Water’s examination of the issue by pointing out that any planning process must include potential demand side alternatives, the impact of pricing on demand, changes in the county’s financial state and other factors.

“The principal challenge to the PSC’s 2006 conclusion that there is a need for the new water supply that the desal plant would provide is that the actual water demand over the last five years has fallen significantly below projected demands, suggesting that the need for new water has been considerably overstated,” Appleton stated.

The findings echo those of prior studies on both water supply options and United Water’s treatment of alternatives. In 2005, a geological survey reached a similar conclusion on demand side strategies, while An Economic Northwest Report highlighted UW’s lack of transparency and documentation in cost analyses.

State and local officials commended the study’s findings and a desire to put them into action. County Legislative Chairwoman Harriet Cornell announced plans for a water supply proposal which will likely factor in many of Appleton’s recommendations, while State Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee announced her own proposal on the state level requiring all demand side solutions be exhausted before supply side options are considered.

The timing of the report’s release is also advantageous for activists, who will face PSC representatives at public hearings on October 1 and 2. Given the growing attention to desal and the Rockland Water Coalition’s recent success in obtaining over 24,500 signatures for a petition opposing the plant, the hearings are expected to have a high turnout.

In addition, the report comes just in time for Rockland Water Week, a Rockland Water Coalition project where 20 area restaurants will donate 10 percent of their profits from a given night. The Coalition will use the donations to hire experts for the PSC hearings in October.