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Opinion: Desal Plant Doesn't Add Up

A letter to the editor regarding the proposed Hudson River desalination plant.

Opinion: Desal Plant Doesn't Add Up

To the editor:

Driving around town recently I’ve noticed the road signs imploring citizens to “Stop the Desal”. This is in reference to United Water’s (UW) proposal to construct a desalination plant in Haverstraw Bay, which according to a UW 2010 estimate could cost between $139 million and $189 million. Independent experts calculate the cost to be significantly higher once hidden factors are taken into consideration. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation is currently reviewing all comments and the larger questions of true cost are being asked. 

This got me thinking about the numbers behind this. As an engineer, I am naturally drawn to numbers and looking at things in an analytical light. While there are many technical reasons why desalination is not the most cost effective or environmentally sound water source, I want to focus purely on the numbers of what is at play.

United Water’s Annual Water Quality Report issued in May 2012 included some interesting statistics. On page three of this report UW states: “In 2011, United Water produced 10.63 billion gallons of water. We determined that 25 percent of the water we produced is non-revenue producing. This is water lost due to leaks, main breaks, under-registering meters, fire fighting, hydrant flushing and theft of service.” This is a rather interesting percentage. When you look at what that translates into you find the following:

  • 25% of 10.63 billion gallons is equal to 2.658 billion gallons for the year
  • Taking that 2.658 billion gallons of water and dividing it by 365 days (for a year) yields 7.28 million gallons of Wwater per day.
  • In 2011, United Water LOST 7.28 mILLION gallons of water per day. While a portion of that number is related to fire fighting, a larger percentage is related to leaks in pipes and water main breaks.

United Water’s proposed desalination plant at full build out is proposed to provide 7.5 million gallons of water per day. At United Water’s current annual lost water rate of 7.28 million gallons per day, the net increase from the proposed desalination plant would be approximately 219,000 gallons of water per day at a cost of between $139 million and $189 million (in 2010 dollars). So each gallon of water would cost between $634 and $862 per gallon. This would rival some of the most premium aged scotches available.

The United Water proposed desalination project does nothing to improve or enhance the existing water transmission/supply system. Instead it creates a brand new plant that does not currently exist that will provide an additional burden of infrastructure (pumps, pipes, controls, electrical equipment, buildings, etc.) that will have to be operated, maintained and replaced as part of a capital improvement program. Once it is built we are stuck with it and the operating costs forever. That means every 15 years or so the pumping systems, motors, controls, etc. will have to be upgraded at the cost of millions of dollars. All of this would be funded by us -- the rate payers.

In addition, pushing more water through the already aged system of pipes will likely result in yet more water main breaks and leaks. So, after spending close to $200 million dollars we may not have increased our water supply at all. Instead we are just trying to cover the losses of what United Water already “produces” or actually takes from the surrounding environment. This is United Water’s proposal instead of spending money on improving the existing infrastructure to prevent these unreasonable losses of a precious resource. What other business do you know of that can lose 25-percent of their product and still be profitable?

This does not make any mathematical sense at all. There are several options and alternatives that can provide additional water sources that would not include such a foolish use of rate payer dollars. Many of the alternatives would create construction jobs and if we invested more on fixing existing infrastructure would also result in more construction jobs. Let’s think about a more robust and sensible solution to our water needs and protect our existing infrastructure and environment.

It should not be forgotten that UW is a private company with a corporate interest; the goal is making profits, not to spend on improvements to existing infrastructure, leaving us poorly served. Maybe this is why Paris has elected to not renew their contract with Suez Environment (French parent company of United Water) and take back their public water supply to return to municipal ownership and operation.

-Rich Feminella, Upper Nyack

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