A Cup of the Hudson Next to Your Plate


Why are we going to drink from a river whose fish are not safe to eat? The answer’s not very complicated. Too many people and not enough water. The water company was ordered by the State to find additional resources as part of the agreement to allow the rate increase it was requesting. An obvious solution to the problem—throw the brakes on in places like Ramapo where growth is dangerously out of control—was not only disregarded, United Water’s alternative will probably exacerbate the growth that is urbanizing the town. Now that developers can claim the problem will be solved (in 2015), the Ramapo Master Plan to create the Ramapo Megaburb can proceed.

One Expert’s Reaction

Nicholas Christie-Blick is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. Professor Blick co-authored a study titled Water Shortages, Development, and Drought in Rockland County with Bradfield Lyon and Yekaterina Gluzberg (published in the Journal of the American Water Resources).

What follows are Dr. Christie-Blick’s initial observations to the proposal by United Water.

"UWNY has been talking about this option for several years. They are forced into it because reprocessing sewage will be an even harder sell. (The output from the Western Ramapo plant will go into the river before being extracted again from shallow wells in Pleistocene gravels. There is no such convenient option in the rest of Rockland with an equivalent shut-down capability.)"

"I think that the biggest challenges for a desalination plant may be contaminants not removed in purification, and the fact that the output will go directly into the domestic supply, into Lake DeForest or into storage wells. So the potential exists to stuff up the entire water supply."

"Given the price tag of the Western Ramapo plant, I suspect that the $79 million is on the low side. Also, no mention is made of the cost of the energy demand for the desalination process, or the impact of either the initial investment or running costs on the price of water in Rockland. The recent large hike pays for little more than cosmetic tinkering to the water supply, with an emphasis on summer peak demand."

"With regard to output, 7.5 MGD is modest. The (daily) demand in Rockland is 28-29 MGD. Since 90% of 300,000 residents are supplied by UWNY, that works out at ~100 gallons per person per day. 7.5 MGD serves 75,000 people, on average. However, as UWNY knows, the problem is peak demand (~45 MGD), especially during times of deficient rainfall (say every 3-5 years). So, since the peak demand will also scale with population, the additional supply is probably good for no more than an extra 50,000 people. Bear in mind that we already need water restrictions with as little as 6 months of deficient rainfall."

"Beyond the cost to the consumer, yet to be estimated, and as pointed out in the [Journal News] article, the promise of desalination in the eyes of developers, local politicians and the general public may be a more or less limitless supply. If we can process 7.5 MGD, then let's build an even bigger plant when we need one. As the folks at Preserve Ramapo will be happy to explain to you, we are already moving too rapidly from a rural/suburban county to a congested city. Since the Ramapo town board continues to be responsible for the largest population increases in Rockland’s largest town, and no town board shows any sign of standing in the path of developers, the prospects for runaway growth and a burgeoning demand for water are rather good."

"Among the devils in details not discussed by Laura Incalcaterra [in her Journal article] are the security of the domestic water supply and cost.  What is needed, I believe, is a mechanism for linking development to the real cost of augmenting the water supply (and other infrastructure actually). If all new construction was whacked with a surcharge, then it would immediately become much less attractive to put up new buildings. Among the absurdities of the present arrangement is that county residents are forced to subsidize the profits of the developers."

--Nicholas Christie-Blick

[Editor’s note: Professor Christie-Blick explained to us that he offers these comments "in the context of the issues raised rather than firm conclusions about what UWNY has in mind." He will, no doubt, have to more to say on the subject when he returns from New Zealand and is able to study the company’s formal proposal.

You can read the Journal News article United Water proposes desalination plant along the Hudson River here.

—Michael Castelluccio]