Desalination Isn’t Clearwater

by Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater Environmental Action Director

Like Rockland’s water, the flow of reliable information to those who need it is threatened by United Water New York (UWNY) and its proposed desalination plant.  The fast-track DEIS process has limited the opportunities for public scrutiny and comment, leaving it to local citizens’ groups to uncover and point out the problems with the draft environmental impact statement.

UWNY, a private, for-profit, multinational corporation, wants to make homes and businesses throughout water-rich Rockland County pay to drink desalinized brackish water from Haverstraw Bay, 3.5 miles from the leaking Indian Point nuclear plant. United Water proposes building a desalinization plant that would pipe treated Hudson River water into homes and businesses throughout Rockland County. This facility would greatly increase water bills, degrade the environment and drinking water quality and create a destructive, far-reaching precedent for desalination in water-rich areas as a tool for water speculators.

Public health threats:  The brackish Haverstraw Bay has industrial discharges – New York State doesn’t even consider it a source of drinking water . The desalination plant’s intake of river water would be sited 3.5 miles from the Indian Point nuclear plant which is leaking tritium, strontium-90 and other radioactive isotopes into the Hudson. Tritium cannot be removed by the plant’s reverse osmosis process.  Low levels of strontium-90 have already been found in test results of the desalination pilot operation.   Health and safety impacts of such low-level exposures in drinking water have not been adequately assessed.  Suez Environnement Group’s parent company GDF Suez is a major owner/operator of nuclear plants.

Environmental threats:  Withdrawing 10 million gallons of water and injecting 92,000 gallons of waste water a day, desalination would damage the sensitive, critical habitat of Haverstraw Bay expressly violating existing water resource conservation and coastal management plans and further compromising declining fish populations — including the endangered Atlantic sturgeon.   Residents are also concerned it would accelerate over-development of an area already burdened with heavy development pressures.

Needless expense: Desalination is the most energy-intensive and expensive form of drinking water and UWNY has testified about possible  “rate shock” when consumers get the bill.  Desalination should only be used as a last resort for arid places with no other choices. With proper management, water-rich Rockland has a large reservoir that together with groundwater sources should adequately supply residents’ needs.  A 2011 United States Geological Survey survey released after United Water’s test plant was already built shows Rockland has plenty of groundwater resources to meet resident needs – more than previously thought.  But if Rockland needs more fresh water in the future, conservation, green storm water infrastructure practices and recycling can provide it without resorting to an extremely expensive, energy-intensive desalination plant.  UWNY has violated industry best practices by virtually ignoring more appropriate, less expensive or invasive options, such as waste water return, that don’t involve building large infrastructure.  If United Water succeeds in Rockland County, it could set a pattern that is likely to be repeated throughout our region and across the country.

Selling Rockland’s water to New Jersey:  United Water New York is owned by Suez Environment , an $18 billion multi-national corporation which profits from privatizing water resources around the world.  Rockland residents would bear the capital costs of a new desalination plant while UWNY would charge them for the desalinated water.  Meanwhile UWNY and its affiliate United Water New Jersey also make money by discharging water from Rockland’s DeForest Lake Reservoir into New Jersey, where residents pay to use it. With more of Rockland’s water coming from a desalinization plant, less would be drawn from the DeForest Lake Reservoir, leaving more of its water to spill into New Jersey for use there.

United Water has a history of sending much more water to New Jersey than its of the reservoir discharge permit allows and was fined by the NYSDEC for doing this in 2007.   Data from the United States Geological Survey indicates excess releases from Lake DeForest to New Jersey have continued for decades, and between 1991 and 2007 United Water took roughly double the permitted limits.  Yet when the reservoir was built, the NYS authorization for it stated that it was to be “operated solely for the benefit of the citizens of Rockland County.  The only benefit to the Hackensack Water Company (United Water New Jersey) and the people of New Jersey is the incidental benefit of a regulated flow in the river.” The desalinization project pits the interests and water rights of Rockland against New Jersey, with United Water profiting at both ends.

An independent economist and hydrologists hired by the Rockland Water Coalition citizens’ group have found United Water’s 4,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement riddled with gaps, questionable methodologies and unreliable cost estimates.  Rockland municipal, county and state officials are calling for an extension of the comment period, including in a unanimous resolution that passed the Rockland Legislature.  Some 20,000 residents have signed petitions opposing the project. But the issue remains under reported in major media, and time is running out.

What you can do: Visit SustainableRockland.org to sign our petition to Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature opposing the desalination plant. Please do so by April 20 at 5p, the close of the comment period on United Water’s proposed desalination project.

Manna Jo Greene is Clearwater’s Environmental Action Director.

Founded 40 years ago by music legend and environmental activist Pete Seeger, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater has been at the forefront of the environmental movement as champion of the Hudson River, working to pass landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act, providing innovative educational programs, environmental advocacy, and musical celebrations, including the renowned annual Clearwater Festival

Utilizing the greatest natural resource in the region, the Hudson River, Clearwater has become the grassroots model for producing positive changes to protect our planet.

Originally appeared in Nyack News & Views 4/14/2012