A Wake for Palm Coast Desalination: Consultants Talk “Hiatus” Rather Than Demise
FlaglerLive | August 17, 2011
“To me, this is sort of a funeral,” Mike Duggins said before going into the last scheduled public hearing on Palm Coast’s desalination plant in Marineland this evening. Duggins, who actually lives a few miles south of Palm Coast’s boundaries, on South Anderson Highway, has been following the desalination project for at least two years, never with much enthusiasm for it.
The Palm Coast-led project once counted 11 local governments among its paying participants (among them Bunnell, Flagler County and Flagler Beach). They’ve been dropping out one by one until last month, when the St. Johns River Water Management District was the next-to-last to bail, leaving Palm Coast steering a $200 million project by itself. Earlier this month the Palm Coast City Council conceded that it could no longer continue the project.
Officially, the project is not scrapped. It’s on hold–the favored cliche is “on the shelf.” Malcolm Pirnie, the consultant Palm Coast and others hired to develop the project’s planning and siting stages, has been hosting public hearings along the way, to ensure that the project was transparent–which it has been, remarkably so. But transparency hasn’t diminished public skepticism that has shadowed the so-called Coquina Coast Seawater Desalination project almost since its conception three years ago.
Fewer than 50 people attended the public hearing Wednesday evening, at Whitney Labs’ auditorium, where Malcolm Pirnie’s personnel did its best to steer away from the wake atmosphere. The project is “taking a hiatus,” is how Malcolm Pirnie Vice President Ed Balchon put it, “to allow population growth to determine where we’re going to go next.”
It’ll be at least two years before the project is restarted, if it’s restarted. But in Malcolm Pirnie’s presentation Wednesday evening, the plant would still be built by 2020, assuming the economy improves. And assuming not only that Palm Coast’s politicians are still willing to back it, but that the many other “partners” it had previously drafted were willing to re-enlist.
Palm Coast itself is not running out of water by any means. Just this month the city secured, after many years of work, a water-consumption permit from the water management district that increases the amount of water it’s allowed to pump from wells by 22 percent–from 9 million gallons per day to 11 million gallons per day. The city’s consumption last week was 7.67 million gallons per day. The new permit is good for 20 years, and may be expanded again for additional draws, Richard Adams, Palm Coast’s utilities director, said. Still, Adams said, the city will reach the point sometime in the future when well-water draws will not be enough: an alternative source will be required, and as he and others sees it, desalination would be that option.
Adams was at the hearing Wednesday evening but he didn’t speak. It was Malcolm Pirnie’s show. Consultants talked about the history of the project and summed up the project’s more technical, recent developments–bathymetry survey (the length and depth of a pipeline needed to extend out into the ocean to get the water, and to discharge it), the 14 general sites where the desalination plant might be sited should it be built (all within in Palm Coast’s city limits), the criteria that go into siting such a plant in a hurricane-prone zone.
Questions from the public focused on technical matters, too: salinity, economies of scale, costs, siting details, corrosion of pipes, the location of pipes (all would be below ground). But the consultants could not say what size the plant would be even if it were built. A question was raised about electrical power: it would take a massive amount of power to run the plant. Consultants found out from Florida Power and Light that there is capacity to generate the 7 to 40 megawatts needed to run the plant without need for–as one individual wondered–nuclear power. But it’s less clear whether the existing grid can support a plant located in Palm Coast.
Where, a St. Augustine resident asked, does the federal government fit into the project, if at all? From a regulatory level, all regulations are at the state level. The federal government, however, may play a financial, subsidizing role: Malcolm Pirnie is exploring how.
One question elicited an answer that most people aren’t familiar with: today, there is only one seawater desalination plant operating in the United States, that of Tampa Bay Water–a plant that was beset with cost overruns and innumerable complications since its earliest days. But, the consultants said, desalination worldwide provides water for a combined population equivalent to that of Florida. (Those desalination plants are located in desert or arid, water-starved regions such as the Middle East and Australia.)
A question was also asked about the St. Johns River, which dumps millions of gallons of water a day into the ocean, as an alternative. The answer: it is an alternative for population centers closer to the river. But for population centers such as Palm Coast, which are closer to the ocean, desalination may be the more cost-effective alternative.
There’ll be no more meetings. But the project’s Twitter feeds, the public was told, will keep tweeting.