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HUDSON RIVER DESALINATION

Image of ballast discharge from an ocean ship.

The Hudson River is an important estuary that contributes to New York's economy, heritage, recreation, environment, and aesthetic beauty.  For many years, CCE has sought to protect, preserve, and restore the Hudson. Haverstraw Bay, located in the lower region of the Hudson River, has been dedicated a significant coastal fish and wildlife habitat and is critical habitat for numerous fish and other aquatic species.

United Water, a subsidiary of Suez Environment, has proposed building a desalination plant at Haverstraw Bay in Rockland County, NY.  Desalination plants should not be proposed for these ecological significant areas. Maintaining Haverstraw Bay is a crucial part in the overall process of preserving the Hudson River Estuary.  CCE has identified conservation alternatives and sustainable water solutions to Rockland's drinking water needs.

What Is Desalination?

Desalination is a process to remove salt and minerals from salt water to produce drinkable water. Reverse osmosis is the most common process, used in 96% of desalination plants in the United States.. It takes two to three gallons of salt water to make one gallon of fresh water. While desalinating water may be the only solution in arid and drought stricken regions, there are numerous environmental and social problems associated with this technology, including:

Intensive Energy Use

Desalination plants are factories that require enormous amounts of energy. Locally, most of this energy would be derived from nuclear, coal, oil, and gas. Desalination plants that were studied in California use approximately 9 times the energy of surface water treatment and 14 times the energy as ground water production. Increasing local energy demand intensifies dependence on fossil fuels, further congests already outdated and constrained energy grids, and emits harmful climate change and smog-producing pollution.

Local Habitat Destruction

The water intake stations of desalination facilities, similar to power plants, kill larvae, eggs, juveniles, and adult fish in two key ways:

  • Entrainment – the capture of aquatic organisms with the water through the intake valve; and
  • Impingement – the fatal pinning of organisms too large to fit through the mesh screens.

Fish mortalities, due to entrainment and impingement, vary based on the quantity and speed of the water that passes through the intake valve. The amount of marine life in the area of the intake station also plays an important factor in loss of marine life. Haverstraw Bay is an important nursery area for: Stripped Bass, American Shad, White Perch, Tomcod, and Atlantic Sturgeon, Anchovy, and Blueclaw Crab. A desalination plant could interfere with the protection of these critical fisheries and habitats, particularly for the Atlantic Sturgeon, which was recently added to endangered species list.

Harmful Discharges

High concentrations of salts, minerals, chemicals, or any other pollutants including heavy metals and PCBs will be returned to the Hudson River after the water has been extracted. These discharges are called brine discharges and they can impact benthic creatures that may be unable to survive in an environment altered with higher concentrations of salts and minerals.

Public Health Impacts

Because Haverstraw Bay is less than three miles from Indian Point Nuclear Facility, the water contains additional contaminants, including radioactive Tritium, Stontium-90, Cesium-137, and Iodine-131. These elements are known to cause cancer and cannot be filtered out by the reverse osmosis process used in desalination.

Rate Increases

Building, operating and maintaining desalination plants is expensive and will likely cause rate increases. Estimates by United Water anticipate the construction of the Rockland County desalination plant to cost up to $189 million, which would be paid for by increasing rates. Due to the immense amount of required energy, operational costs can potentially skyrocket due to their link to the already unpredictable energy market. United Water has already requested 2 rate increases before construction has even begun on the facility. Unanticipated problems during construction and maintenance, combined with increasing energy costs could cause Rockland's water rates to increase further.

Rockland Needs Conservation, Not Desalination

The most cost-effective way to protect drinking water is conservation. Protecting streams, rivers, and lakes that recharge aquifers and reservoirs is critical to protect the quality and quantity of drinking water. The quality and quantity of drinking water is threatened by sprawling development covering ground water recharge areas; polluted runoff from agricultural, commercial, and industrial sites; and failing wastewater infrastructure.  Implementing better water management practices is an effective strategy to protect drinking water at the source.  

Rockland is a water-rich county, with 49 inches of rainfall per year; there is no need for an additional water source.  By implementing a county-wide Comprehensive Water Management Plan, utilizing conservation measures, and implementing green infrastructure projects, Rockland can easily offset the need for an expensive, energy-intensive desalination plant.

Environmental Review Process

There are four agencies currently reviewing United Water's desalination proposal:

New York State Public Service Commission (PSC)

As the result of a rate case, United Water was granted the permission by the PSC to raise Rockland's water rates, in return for supplying additional water to the County.  The additional water supply source proposed by United Water was a desalination plant.  In 2013, the PSC decided to do a new review of the 2006 rate case decision, as new evidence emerged that Rockland County has sufficient water resources, and that conservation and better county water management would offset the need for an additional water supply. CCE submitted comments in support of conservation and sustainable water management to meet Rockland water needs.

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)

The DEC is the lead agency, responsible for  assessing the potential adverse impacts to the people, the Hudson, and the environment from a desalination plant. In January, 2012, the DEC accepted United Water's Draft Environmental Impact Statement(DEIS) and issued draft permits for the desalination project. CCE submitted comments and participated in the two public hearings held by the DEC.

New York Department of State (DOS)

The DOS must determine if the desalination proposal is consistent with Coastal Zone Management (CZM) policies, which are used to guide the state's efforts to create and maintain clean, accessible, and prosperous coastal areas and inland waterways for present and future generations. CCE submitted comments in 2012, advocating that the desalination proposal is inconsistent with CZM policies.

United States Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps will determine whether constructing and installing the desalination plant, the intake pipe, and the infrastructure needed for the proposal will negatively impact the Hudson River. CCE submitted comments outlining the adverse impacts associated with desalination infrastructure, which are currently under review by the Army Corps.

Additional Information:

CCE works with the Rockland Coalition for Sustainable Water, a coalition of citizens and environmental organizations taking a critical look at the impacts of the proposal and to advocate sustainable water management policies, such as conservation.

updated by bsmith 1/24/14