It was an almost terse letter: The Bunnell County Commission on April 27 informed the Coquina Seawater Desalination Project consortium that it would no longer participate in the $1 billion project. To remain in the consortium, Bunnell would have had to pony up $50,000 this year, $180,000 in a subsequent phase, and likely more after that.
“Can’t afford it,” Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez said, echoing the brief letter’s more formal goodbye: “While the city extends its best wishes in support of this initiative, and is confident the project will be successful, we are unable to continue participation at this time.”
The city’s optimism about the success of the project may be premature for two reasons: First, other governments are abandoning the consortium. Second, the assumptions on which the desalination project were based when it was first thought up–big year-over-year population increases in Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties, a relatively rapid decrease in fresh water capacities, ample property tax revenue jangling up local coffers–are all history. Population influxes have stopped and even declined slightly. Water use has declined as well. And even formerly rich cities like Palm Coast are seeing their budgets slashed and their reserves dwindle.
Flagler County left the consortium earlier this month for the same reason, leaving Palm Coast and Flagler Beach the only governments of note in Flagler County still in the project. Flagler Beach’s participation is also in question: Flagler Beach Mayor Alice Baker was meeting with interim City Manager Bernie Murphy to discuss budget issues in a city where all departments have been ordered to prepare for across the board budget cuts of 21 percent.
Flagler Beach’s involvement in desalination may be among the casualties. “I asked him about that yesterday,” Baker said, referring to Murphy, “and he said ‘I don’t know whether we’re going to go with it or not.'” Murphy will make a recommendation that the commission will then have to act on. The matter is likely to be discussed by the Flagler Beach City Commission at its next meeting on May 13.
Leesburg, Mount Dora, St. Johns County and Palm Coast are the last remaining so-called “suppliers” in the project–government entities that provide a larger dollar contributions up front in exchange for discounted water rates down the line once the desalination plant is producing fresh water. But the fewer “suppliers” remain in the project, the more expensive it will be for each to sustain Coquina’s future phases. The consortium is nowhere near construction, although as other governments leave, the original project is getting scaled down.
For governments no longer associated with the consortium, the search for new sources of water isn’t over. “The amount of water Bunnell was going to need wasn’t too much,” Bunnell’s Martinez said. “So what we need now is to look for a secondary source of water should we need it.” What that source is is not clear.