Looking to the Hudson for Rockland’s
By ANAHAD O’CONNOR
The New York Times January 30, 2007
STONY POINT, N.Y., Jan. 24 — There was
a time not long ago when the Hudson River was little more than a
convenient dump site, a river so heavily used and contaminated that
a state commission once referred to it as New York’s open sewer. But
Rockland County residents may soon be drinking its water.
A regional water supply company that
serves Rockland County submitted a plan this month to build a
desalination plant that would tap the Hudson to address Rockland’s
long-term water needs. The company, United Water New York, would
build the plant by 2015 and supply Rockland residents with 7.5
million gallons of drinking water a day.
The plan is the latest sign of the
Hudson River’s slow reawakening. For decades, the river was
considered New York’s most polluted waterway because it was so
tainted by sewage and industrial pollutants. In recent years, state
officials and environmentalists have struggled to revive the ailing
river, pumping millions of dollars into cleanup efforts and
ecological programs to restore populations of sturgeon, shad and
other marine life that had all but vanished.
Those efforts have helped the Hudson
inch closer to the healthy, swimmable river that it was before
industry sprouted along its banks.
But getting the people of Rockland
County to look past the ick factor may be another challenge.
"The public has been told over and over
again that the Hudson is dirty and has been polluted up and down by
industrial waste for years," said C. Scott Vanderhoef, the county
executive. "Even though most of us agree that the river is better
now than it was a decade or two ago, getting over that natural
concern about the quality of water is going to be a fairly big
And, it seems, the company’s effort to
process the water will be an expensive one.
United Water, which supplies water to
more than two dozen municipalities across the country, estimates
that construction of the desalination plant would cost nearly $80
million, which the company will pay for in part by raising rates. It
would be built in the vicinity of Stony Point, just across the
Hudson from the Indian Point nuclear plant, and include a complex
treatment system that must remove not only toxic chemicals like
PCBs, tritium and strontium 90, but also an array of dissolved
solids like sodium, sulfate and magnesium.
Michael J. Pointing, vice president and
general manager of United Water New York, said the water would be
pumped through carbon filters to leach out pollutants, then pushed
through enormous membranes that remove salt through a process called
"It will be treated to an extremely
high standard," Mr. Pointing said. "In many cases, the reverse
osmosis technology removes a lot more elements than traditional
treatment methods can."
There are already a few towns in the
Hudson Valley, including Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park, that draw their
drinking water from the river. But because those towns are all
farther north along the Hudson — far from the point where it turns
from saltwater to freshwater — they have to treat their water only
Rockland County residents currently use
groundwater, but the supply is quickly dwindling. The county’s
population is rising, having increased to 293,000 in 2005 from
286,000 in 2000, and more than 90 percent of its land has been
developed, local officials said.
The Hudson River plan was developed
last year after United Water proposed a rate increase in Rockland
County and, in turn, was ordered by the State Public Service
Commission to create a long-term solution for the county’s growing
The proposal must be vetted by public
officials, local environmental groups and, eventually, the public.
That could be a problem, considering that the Hudson conjures an
unfavorable image for many New Yorkers, said John Waldman, a
professor of biology at Queens College and the author of a book on
New York Harbor, "Heartbeats in the Muck."
"I still meet people who tell me
they’re surprised that the Hudson has fish," he said. "The river may
be a lot cleaner nowadays, but there’s a lag in public perception."
Alex Matthiessen, executive director of
Riverkeeper, an environmental group that grew out of a movement in
the 1960s to protect the Hudson River, said that instead of building
the desalination plant, the focus should be on curbing growth and
"Rockland County is on the verge of
being overbuilt and no longer has the capacity for all this
burgeoning population growth," Mr. Matthiessen said. "We’re running
out of room on the Tappan Zee Bridge, at our schools, at the
Rockland County sewage treatment plant, on our roads, and all signs
point toward a more serious issue. It’s a large issue facing not
just Rockland County but the entire Hudson Valley."
But Mr. Vanderhoef, the county
executive, said the county has enforced conservation measures in the
past. In Rockland, the per capita usage of water is about 60 gallons
a day, compared with roughly 90 gallons a day nationwide, according
to the Environmental Protection Agency. Conservation alone, Mr.
Vanderhoef said, is no longer a viable solution.
The county has already reached the
point where providing water day to day is a struggle, he said. "What
we’re fighting for now," he said, "is enough water just to feed the
current population, and we need a plan."