It’s the energizer bunny of local water initiatives: The Coquina Coast Seawater Desalination project—a Palm Coast-led plan to build a desalination plant for close to half a billion dollars. Palm Coast launched the initiative in 2008 with more than a dozen local government partners, including Flagler County, Bunnell, Flagler Beach, St. Johns County and others. Partners dropped out one by one due to budget constraints and other uncertainties about the project. Yet Palm Coast continues to champion the project as its only alternative water source for the future.
Palm Coast’s desalination consultant presented the project’s latest status at a quarterly gathering of Flagler County’s elected officials Monday evening, with representatives from Bunnell, Flagler Beach, Beverly Beach, Marineland, Palm Coast and the county commission arraigned horseshoe-style in the county’s Emergency Operations Center’s large meeting room. The presentation, a reminder to the elected that Palm Coast intends literally to carry the water for regional desalination, drew polite interest and a few questions, but nothing to suggest that local governments are anywhere near rejoining the project.
Lack of interest was underscored this morning when the desalination consortium–or what’s left of it–met, this time by phone conference rather than physically (it normally meets at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway, and is scheduling future meetings there). “Interestingly enough, there is none of the former cooperators, participants or ex-officios on the line,” Richard Adams, Palm Coast’s utilities director and chairman of the consortium, said this morning, in reference to former participants, some of whom had said they’d be interested in monitoring the consortium’s progress and possibly rejoin later. There was virtually no public participation in the meeting.
That meeting laid out the project’s current phase, at a cost of $1.8 million, that includes holding quarterly meetings, disseminating public information, maintaining the project’s web site, investigating ways to pay for future phases, more precisely defining future water need requirements and several other preliminary works. (See a complete list of what’s included in that phase here.)
In a budget presentation Monday to the Palm Coast City Council, City Manager Jim Landon submitted a plan that includes spending $6.25 million over the next five years on the desalination project. The money would be drawn from the city’s utility fund, with costs borne by Palm Coast water rate-payers. Palm Coast is also the administrator of the whole project: governments still involved pay their membership cost to the city, which in turn pays Malcolm Pirnie, the consulting firm and, for now, leading contractor in the desalination project.
An enduring criticism against desalination locally is its effects on conservation. The desalination plant is strongly backed by the St. Johns River Water Management District (which is also providing several million dollars for the project) not merely because it provides an alternative water source, but because it would blunt arguments against unsustainable growth. For Palm Coast, major development can’t go forward unless water sources are assured–and the management district signs off on those water sources. Palm Coast’s claim that desalination is the only alternative may be true in so far as additional sources of water are concerned. But conservation, too, is an alternative. Desalination proponents haven’t made that factor part of their overall vision as it undermines their core argument for going forward with desalination now.
Jerry Salsano, a consulting engineer to the St. Johns River Water Management District, rebuked that criticism this morning. “We had a fairly protracted discussion about this over at least one meeting, perhaps two,” Salsano said, “about how there was perhaps a lack of recognition among our detractors that conservation was adequately addressed relative to the plant, and I believe the partners at that time unanimously agreed that it was appropriate to add that element back in so that as the project moved forward, there was a continued recognition by anyone who saw the project that conservation was, continues to be and will be a critical element upon which we base the demand that ultimately results from the project.”
The desalination plant was first conceived to produce 25 million gallons of freshwater per day by 2020, and 80 million gallons of water per day by 2050, which would have made it one of the largest, and most expensive, in the world. That was assuming the partnership included a dozen or so governments sharing the costs. With those partners all but gone and Palm Coast left holding the bag almost exclusively (DeLand, Leesburg and St. Johns are still involved, but not to the degree that Palm Coast is), the scope of the project has been revised to production of 10 million gallons per day by 2020 and 25 million gallons per day by 2050.
Projections in the mid- to late-2000s’ of rapid population growth (and flush budgets swelled by the housing bubble and rising valuations) had encouraged governments to join the desalination consortium. Those projections no longer apply. The costs of the project and its lack of specifics for now—where it will be located, what its effects will be on the ecology, including the discharge of highly concentrated saltwater back into the ocean, energy costs, transmission costs and basic need for desalinated water—are discouraging most governments’ participation.
Even in the lower range of water production (at 10 million gallons of water per day), the plant would cost $400 million at today’s estimates, not including the enormous additional energy production necessary to run a desalination plant. Scott Shannon, presenting the Coquina project to government representatives Monday evening, noted the need to ensure that desalination doesn’t replace one environmental problem with another, such as adding to greenhouse gases. He cited some examples of other desalination plants in Australia and Israel, though without elaborating on their energy dependence.
The plant he referred to in Perth, Australia, online since 2006, operates the same way the projected local plant would—through a process called reverse osmosis, which can be overly simplified as filtering seawater through a membrane that literally separates salt from freshwater. To do so, the process requires huge amounts of energy (the water is fired at the membrane at an extremely high pressure). In Perth, the desalination plant relies on a wind farm consisting of 48 wind turbines, some 20 miles from the plant: Perth’s surroundings, unlike Palm Coast’s, are vastly uninhabited, uninhabitable and windy.
The $425 million Ashkelon plant in Israel, also a reverse-osmosis plant, relies on a power plant co-located on the same grounds as the desalination operation. Ashkelon is the third of five desalination plants with which Israel plans to generate desalinated water for two-thirds of its population by 2014. Israel’s national government is a primary buyer of desalinated water, ensuring those plants’ fiscal viability. Ironically, American taxpayers, who contribute about $3 billion a year in aid to the Israeli government, are more likely to be subsidizing desalination plants in Israel than they are in the United States.