In Blow to Palm Coast, St. Johns Latest to Retreat from Desalination
FlaglerLive | May 5, 2010
In March it was Flagler County. Last month it was Bunnell. On Tuesday it was St. Johns County’s turn to bail, although not entirely, from the desalination consortium led by Palm Coast and the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The fewer partners remain in the consortium, which goes by the name of Coquina Coast Seawater Desalinization Project, the more expensive it will be for those that do remain to continue developing a projected $1.2 billion desalination plant.
- Bunnell Bails from Desalination
- Flagler to Desal Group: Nice Knowin’ Ya
- Coquina Coast Desalination’s Website
Other than the management district, which is contributing some $18 million for the project (most of it for construction), St. Johns was Palm Coast’s largest partner. Its decision to reduce its role to little more than a seat at the table, without a vote and without most of its money (St. Johns will still contribute $50,000 for the privilege of sitting at the table), will vastly increase the amounts Palm Coast taxpayers will have to pay not only to stay in the consortium, but to keep it viable.
The cost for each government agency in the consortium is calculated according to a bewilderingly confusing set of formulas. But it comes down to this: As a full partner with a vote in the consortium, St. Johns would have had to pay $500,000 to $600,000 just for phase two of the project, which entails environmental studies. Actual construction, several years from now, would increase each partner’s costs exponentially.
But virtually every local government in Florida, and in Northeast Florida especially, where unemployment is running higher, is cutting budgets. The desalination project would be too heavy a burden to sustain. The cost for Palm Coast will be far higher than when the consortium was initially formed, unless the desalination plant itself is scaled back considerably. But a desalination plant is expensive whatever the size, which explains Palm Coast Manager Jim Landon’s reaction when he heard the news of St. Johns’ retreat at a lunch meeting on Wednesday.
The exchange he had with Sam Cline, the general contractor who just finished building the expanded Old Kings Road for the city, sums up Palm Coast’s predicament:
Cline: “Front page of the St. Augustine paper today, says St. Johns County is moving out of the Coquina water consortium.”
Landon: “Did they really? Oh, don’t tell me that.” He sighs. “Those guys. I’d heard a rumor to that effect. OK. And your question is?”
Cline: “Is that a pretty serious blow to it happening?”
Landon: “They were our largest partner.”
Cline: “So it’s a serious blow.”
Landon: “Yeah. We had a number of small ones like Bunnell” that left the consortium. “I was not surprised, actually agreed with that decision. Now, St. Johns. Once again I’d heard it might be coming so from that standpoint I’m not surprised but I’m disappointed. Interesting decisions. But I think it’s short-sighted.”
The water management district and Palm Coast take it as fact that desalination is the only option that can meet projected water demand by 2020 and after. But that assumption was based on growth trends set last decade and through the real estate bubble, when Flagler County led the nation in the rate of growth. That trend has reversed course, and with it projected water consumption. Still, Palm Coast continues to plan for vast new developments, including two colossal developments of regional impact (DRI). The desalination plant is, in essence, a way to enable further growth.
The inevitable necessity of a desalination plant is based on the assumption that growth is equally inevitable. The political history of water and development justify that assumption: There is no desire on the Palm Coast city council and no will on the water management board to slow down growth as a means of slowing down water consumption.
But desalination is the nuclear-plant equivalent of water production: it’s enormously costly to build, and it’s enormously energy intensive to run, leading to costs at the consuming end far higher than for water drawn from surface or ground sources. Coquina estimates that desalinated water will cost $4.5 per thousand gallon, as opposed to $1.50 for groundwater. Those are likely conservative estimates. As Palm Coast finds itself increasingly isolated on the desalination project, the pressure will grow on the city council to decide whether they’re willing to take on the mounting costs–and pass them on to rate payers and voters.
The political implications of desalination’s future in Flagler County are barely beginning.