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More Questions Than Answers As Palm Coast Desalination Project Scouts Locations

| March 10, 2011

coquina desalination water project palm coast flagler county

The answers, so far, are brackish. (© FlaglerLive)

For the first time since 2009, and only the second time in the three years that the project has been discussed and planned, consultants for Palm Coast’s projected desalination plant solicited ideas and concerns from the public Wednesday, particularly about the desalination plant’s location, which has yet to be picked. The consultants, White Plains, N.Y.-based Malcolm Pirnie, heard more concern, skepticism and questions than approval. And to many of the questions posed by the public, the consultants had no answer yet, making it more difficult for the public to weigh the so-called Coquina Coast Seawater Desalination Project’s pros and cons as presented by the consultants.

An informed discussion, it was not, though the consultants revealed some data that was previously not known, they said more would come by late March, and they seemed genuinely open to public input about the chief criteria that should guide the choice of a location.

Without question, when given the opportunity to weigh in empirically, 45 people made it clear: they want the siting of the plant, should it come to that, to be driven primarily and overwhelmingly according to strict environmental standards. They want the impact on marine life limited. They’re especially concerned by the high-salinity effluent that will flow out of the plant, and dump into the ocean at a serious cost to the surrounding ecology. They want the energy use at the facility, which will be colossal, to have a limited carbon footprint (though a consultant dismissed a participant’s suggestion that wind turbines could do exactly that, as 48 such turbines do some 20 miles from a desalination plant in Perth, Australia). And they want the physical impact of the plant to not interfere with wildlife, wetlands, water quality and vegetation.

Participants were given color-coded stickers to paste on about 10 boards, each representing a set of criteria ranging from “community values” (that is, the location of the facility, job creation, impacts to recreation) to risks (financial or environmental), costs, and reliability of the plant itself. About 75 to 90 people were in the audience at Marineland’s Whitney Lab auditorium, though judging by the number of stickers that made it on the boards, only 45 people took part in that exercise after the presentation and the Q&A. Environmental stewardship got about 140 stickers. The next-closest criteria, project reliability, got 32, with particular concern about the plant’s ability to withstand natural disasters such as hurricanes.

A list of 30-some potential locations will be made available by March 25, the consultants say. (That date subsequently changed to late June.) The list will be reduced to four or five by year’s end. The sites must be of at least 10 acres each. (At least that’s the figure the project is posting on its website. At the meeting, one of the consultants said the site would need at least 25 acres.) Those sites will be “relatively” close to the ocean. There will be no consideration for brackish-water desalination, which is much less expensive. The plant would have an ultimate  capacity of 20 to 25 million gallons per day, roughly the size of the desalination plant in Tampa Bay (a much-troubled plant since its day of inception, and through its few operating years). It would begin at 10 to 15 million gallons per day. The Intracoastal waterway will not be the source of the water.

No dollar figures were spoken about the overall cost of the project, but project documents put the range of the 10 to 15 million gallon per day plant cost at $180 million to $234 million. That does not include the cost of pipelining the water to other suppliers or users, nor the cost of energy, nor the plant’s environmental costs on its surroundings. The costs are likely to be much higher.

So far, Palm Coast is shouldering the majority of those costs. Initially, five counties and eight municipalities, including Flagler Beach, Bunnell, Flagler County, Volusia and St. Johns were all part of the consortium, sharing costs. They all dropped out except for Palm Coast and Leesburg, with two other local governments keeping a place at the table, but without decision-making authority. That’s left Palm Coast holding the bag, The city is budgeting $1.25 million to the project this year and $1 million each of the next three years, rising to $2 million after that. Those figures are low, should the project proceed further. The St. Johns River Water Management District is contributing a third of the overall project cost, in addition to Palm Coast’s share. The money, so far, is paying for the consultants’ work.

It is essentially a Palm Coast project: the city is eying it as a means of generating profits in the future, especially as other cities tap into Palm Coast’s water source. It is highly unlikely that the plant, if built, would be located on land not owned by Palm Coast–or that the plant would not be controlled by the city. Barring that control, it would not make sense for Palm Coast to continue investing in the venture.

A similar open house and public meeting was held in September 2009 (a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the March meeting was the first broad-based meeting that sought public input), when the project was expected to start operations by 2017. Back then a ship-based desalination plant was one of the options in consideration. That’s no longer an option.

Three of Beverly Beach’s city commissioners and mayor were in attendance at the March 10 meeting. They were not swayed by the presentation. Steve Emmett, Beverly Beach’s mayor, had one question: “Where’s the politicals?” He was referring to the numerous government representatives who’d bought into the project at its inception then dropped out. Speaking for himself, Emmett said, his sense of Barrier Island residents is that “they’re not for this.” The costs will be too prohibitive—beginning with Beverly Beach residents, who now  and in the future will be buying their water from Palm Coast. Desalinated water is projected to cost from $5.35 to $6.10 per thousand gallons, double the cost of the Tampa Bay plant. Future expansion of the plant would lower that cost, according to consultants, to $4.25 per 1,000 gallon.

The rate in Palm Coast is $3.65 per 1,000 gallons in homes that use up to 5,000 gallons per month. The rate goes up to $4.01 for the next 5,000-gallon increment. Customers outside of Palm Coast’s cioty limits pay a 25 percent surcharge.

After their presentation Wednesday, the consultants held an hour-long Q&A. It was more Q’s than A’s. How many jobs might the plant bring? Don’t know. Will the plant generate tax revenue, or will it be government-run, denying that additional revenue to local governments? Don’t know. How far out to sea will the plant’s salty discharge go? “It could be half a mile, it could be two miles.” How much will the pipelining of the effluent or the distribution cost? Don’t know. Where may some of the potential locations of the plant be? Don’t know. Wait for March 25. Given the size of the land needed for the plant and its pledge not to harm recreation and quality of life, one resident asked, is it safe to assume that the location will have to tunnel its intake and discharge pipes under the Barrier Island and the Intracoastal? Don’t know.

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4 Responses for “More Questions Than Answers As Palm Coast Desalination Project Scouts Locations”

  1. Monica Campana says:

    Since they started this scientists have developed forward osmosis – cheaper due to thinner pipes and uses less energy. Hope they remain flexible as technology improves.

  2. palmcoaster says:

    As usual too many “don’t knows” at the cost of 1.25 million this year. Can anyone imagine what the by product discharge will cause to our ecosystem? The pilot and other whales and other oceanic creatures around us? Who will want to buy a home anywhere near a desalt plant to go and enjoy the beach? Sure will not be just because the drinking water will be less expensive for their homes! Sorry Monica but they would not sell this project to this resident with or without better osmosis! I was all for our City buying our own utility and we did. Great investment this was. This desalt plant is not!

  3. Alex says:

    Put a sign up on I-95, US1 and A1A, if you need water, bring water with you we can’t afford to supply you with water.

  4. Don White says:

    When this first started three years ago, the politicians were doing their best, publicly and without shame, to stifle public input and discussion on this. Finally, at one workshop, I and some others were allowed to speak only after I specifically asked Flagler County Commissioner Milissa Holland before the meeting if she would request of the BCC that public input be allowed. She did and they did, though reluctantly. I stated on the public record that I was completely against spending one penny of tax money for this until existing water conservation ordinances were enforced and we stopped doing dumb things like laying water sucking St. Augustine sod behind the County government center, and in the road right-of-way in Town Center, and along SR 100, as was actually being done while I speaking at that very moment. I was brought to this point in the following sequence: sick and tired of seeing watering restrictions completely ignored everywhere including in my own neighborhood, I called Flagler County Code enforcement to file a complaint. I was told by Mr. Ed Rodriguez hat they did not enforce Sec 20-277 of the County Code, which reads: “Law enforcement officials having jurisdiction in the area governed by this article are hereby authorized to enforce the provisions of this article. In addition, the county administrator may also delegate enforcement responsibility for this article to agencies and department of Flagler County government.” When I pointed the second sentence out to him and asked if he would take a complaint and enforce it, he told me he would do so only if directed to do so by the County Manager, and that I should call the Sheriff’s Department. I called the Sheriff’s Department, worked my way up through the desk sergeant to Chief Deputy Rick Look. The bottom line is that the Sheriff”s Department had no knowledge of the ordinance, had never enforced it, and wasn’t real sure what would even happen if someone tried to actually file a complaint. So, backing up to punt, I decided to attempt to make new County Manager Craig Coffey a hero by pointing out to him that, with a one sentence memo directing Code Enforcement to enforce the ordinance, he could quickly address a real problem & gain meaningful, beneficial results. I left at least six messages for Mr. Coffey, summarizing the issue and with my contact information. Finally, in great frustration because he could never be bothered to extend the courtesy of a return phone call even to tell me to go jump in a lake, I left a message with words to the effect that I would be forced to bring the issue up in a public forum if I did not hear from him. Still nothing from Mr. Coffey. So, I did (bring it up in public). Mr. Coffey tap danced & made lots of excuses. Then County Commission Chair Jim O’Connell questioned Mr. Coffey and County Attorney Al Hadeed about it, said they would have the staff look into it, to see what could be done, etc. All this when all he and the rest of the Board could have done at that very moment was to tell Coffey to do his job. Or do it for him by telling Code Enforcement to enforce the Ordinance. Meanwhile, Palm Coast City Council and staff made it clear that the public would not be allowed to speak when they held their subsequent workshops. It became abundantly clear that Palm Coast was so bound and determined to make desal happen regardless of cost, science, or anything else, that it was a complete dis-incentive for anyone to waste their time attending. I guess the bright side now is that, according to the article above, there seems to at least be some interest in hearing the thoughts of the public. The downside is that…here we are….three years later…and as far as I can see, there is still virtually no enforcement of water conservation ordinances by either Flagler County or Palm Coast. And we have spent….how many millions in tax dollars already?? And how many more millions will we spend while we continue to ignore existing conservation ordinances? I don’t get it. The only ones making out here…as far as I can see and as usual…are the consultants. We could do an awfully lot of revenue generating enforcement for all the money that has been spent thus far just studying desal. Please…Flagler County BCC…even though Palm Coast is carrying the flag here and is going to do whatever they want….please tell code enforcement to enforce Sec 20-277. Either that, or eliminate it from the County Code of Ordinances because right now, without enforcement, it is strictly a joke and makes the wistful spending of tax dollars on things like consultants for desal that much harder to stomach. Not to mention how foolish it makes Flagler County government look. Meanwhile, the aquifer keeps going down, down, down; city of Sanford has been given a permit to pump an additional 5 million gallons a day from the St. Johns River for lawn irrigation, etc. So sure…we probably need desal, too. But we still need to enforce the ordinances already on the books….or get rid of them.

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