Looking to the Hudson for Rockland’s Water Needs

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 hurdle."

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 reverse osmosis.

"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 for chemicals.

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 water demands.

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 conserving water.

"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."