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A Wake for Palm Coast Desalination: Consultants Talk “Hiatus” Rather Than Demise

| August 17, 2011

malcolm pirnie coquina desalination palm coast

Question: How long a hiatus on desalination plans? Answer: unknown. The desalination project's consultants entertained questions from the public at Whitney Labs Wednesdsay evening. (FlaglerLive)

“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.

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8 Responses for “A Wake for Palm Coast Desalination: Consultants Talk “Hiatus” Rather Than Demise”

  1. Justice for All says:

    How much did the consultants get paid for this meeting on a project that City Council is supposedly no longer funding? And why haven’t the residents been asked – will you conserve more to avoid paying X dollars per month for water?

  2. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    Eventually, Palm Coast will need to review it’s original decision on Desalination and look at the total cost of the project and the other side of the plan, where Palm Coast will be “in the water business” ..Yes, there are other less expensive alternatives to pumping and dumping salt water in and out of our beaches to supply us with an alternative to a supposed reduction in the aquifer water available. With Palm Coast’s grandeous plan to get our population to the original ITT plan of 200,000, we need to look long term, on just when will we need the alternative supply. But what bothers me, is the thought, that Palm Coast will be a supplier to other cities needing water. This would require not only the $400,000,000 plant, and a city bond to pay for it, but elaborate, water lines running to each City that wants water, at a price of 125% of what we in Palm coast will pay, Already, many Cities have backed out, not due to the economic downturn, but a calculation that water, plus piping will be too high causing a 100% increase over present rates. Should the City really be in the water business??? Let’s slow down and reconsider if this is the way we want to go. This was a City Council decision, made by lay persons, relying on a few opinions. It’s worth looking at again, but not right now,as we take a “hiatus”..

  3. Jim J says:

    Officially, the project is not scrapped. It’s on hold. Kill the idea once and for all – and stop funding any part of the study.

  4. John I says:

    When Palm Coast was growing at an extraordinary rate with no foreseeable end to that growth, it made sense to look into a desalinizatoin plant. However, the rampant unemployment in the area has squashed that population growth, and even led by some measures to a population decrease. The City Council largely sees this City as a retirement town, has largely ignored small business and in fact, shown little interest in job growth beyond the occasional interest in bigger business. Considering that the City Council does not now have, nor ever has had, a plan for job development, we can expect population growth to remain tepid at best for the foreseeable future. As such, the future need for a desalinization plant has effectively evaporated. So kudos to the Council – let the job market wither away and save the money of a desal plant. Maybe now they can build that city hall that Mr. Landon wants so badly.

  5. PalmCoastPioneers says:

    I.T.T. ‘s original plan was for a *city* with a population of 750,000 people, with an adequate water supply for this projected population for Palm Coast, Inc., at full build out – after all, ITT had a highly paid *braintrust* and their calculations of water needs were before low water use toilets, low flow irrigation, low flow washing machines, low flow shower heads, and the general *energy conservation mindedness* that we have today. These calculations existed for years until the Federal Investigators came here to Palm Coast and restricted the land ITT could develop to only 42,000 acres of the total Palm Coast, Inc. Gargantuan acreage of 93,000 acres of Palm Coast. This was to prevent *Urban Sprawl*and that is why the 250,000 population figures came about. This is why Palm Coast, Inc. was offered as ‘…the largest planned community in the Nation..’ and ‘…the largest “New Town’ in the World…’ as in the 1972 Publication of ‘….an Approach to a New City: Palm Coast…’.

  6. D says:

    Maybe if they start enforcing watering regulations and re-writing landscaping ordinances to encourage more drought tolerant landscaping–especially reducing and/or eliminating water sucking St. Augustine sod–desal would never be needed. Also, how transparent would you call it when they often did not allow public participation in some of the workshops and hearings?

  7. palmcoaster says:

    Palm Coast has over 300 miles of canals combined fresh and saltwater that on a continuous basis percolate into our water basin. We had an irrigation well done lately on a Palm Coast home next to the Palm Harbor Golf Course and the well digger showed me that he found water at only 8 feet…he went further down to secure a strong flow. The technician said -we are all like floating on the water table under us. Are these two local residents pushing for the desalt plant sufficiently informed of this? Have they read the negative outcomes of the Tampa desalt plant?

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