Atlantic Chapter

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Desalination seeks a foothold in the wet Northeast

DEC near decision on state’s first plant in Hudson’s critical Haverstraw Bay

by Peggy Kurtz and Gale Pisha

New York hardly seems a likely place to need desalination to provide its drinking water. Average rainfall in the Lower Hudson is more than 49 inches, compared to 10.77 inches in San Diego and 4.49 inches in Las Vegas.

Yet desalination is exactly what United Water New York, a subsidiary of the multinational company Suez Environment, is proposing for Rockland County, just north of New York City. Water would be taken from a critical habitat on the Hudson River, and desalinated for Rockland’s drinking water.

Rockland Sierra Club members have been fighting this massive desalination proposal for the past five years. Sierra Club was a founding member of the Rockland Water Coalition, which has grown into a coalition of 30 local, regional and national environmental and citizens’ groups, including Food and Water Watch, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, NYPIRG, and Clearwater.

Dangerous climate precedent

These bigger groups have gotten involved because of the larger significance of this project as a destructive precedent for water and energy policy at a very critical time. That’s also why Suez is putting so many resources behind it. They, too, see it as a foothold for desalination in the wet Northeast.

Desalination uses reverse osmosis, a highly energy intensive technology, which also makes it the most expensive water supply source. It’s also the water supply source with the highest environmental impacts. For all these reasons desalination has always been considered the water supply method of last resort.

As the first desalination plant in New York and one of the first in the Northeast, this massive plant would move our state 180 degrees in the wrong direction on water and energy policy. This plant will lock New York into substantial increases in energy use at a time when it is urgent that we should be steeply reducing our carbon footprint.

The International Energy Agency warns that if the world continues to build carbon intensive infrastructure in the next few years, by 2017 it will be impossible to hold global warming to safe levels. Desalination is a perfect example of carbon-intensive infrastructure that will lock in long-term increases in greenhouse gas emissions. (See

Cradle of many species

In addition, United Water proposes to build this plant on Haverstraw Bay, which is officially designated as “irreplaceable habitat” for the Hudson River. In fact, it is the highest rated habitat on the entire estuary. This area is critical habitat not only for certain Hudson River species, but also for federally endangered Atlantic coastal species.

Downstream from Indian Point

Rockland residents are also concerned about the fact that the intake for this desalination plant would be sited 3.5 miles downstream from Indian Point nuclear power plant. This aging facility is leaking radioactive byproducts into the Hudson River. Reverse osmosis cannot remove tritium. Trace amounts of both tritium and strontium 90 appear in the drinking water from United Water’s pilot plant. Residents are rightfully concerned about the long term effects of exposure to low levels of radiation.

Its proximity to Indian Point raises a further issue that would have larger repercussions for New York state. Indian Point has argued that releases of radiation into the river are acceptable, since the river is rated for industrial discharges. However, if this same water is to be reclassified as drinking water, that would set a very dangerous precedent, in which a body of water used for industrial discharges can be classified at the same time as clean enough for drinking water.

Finally, everyone is talking right now about making our communities more climate  resilient. Instead, this plant would site essential public water supply right on the river, where it would be more vulnerable than ever before. During Hurricane Sandy, equipment from United Water’s pilot plant was ripped up and mangled. What happens to the public water supply in Rockland County once we start seeing storms like this on a regular basis?


Photo by Rosspilot
A multinational company wants to build the first desalination plant in the state on the Hudson River, just a few miles from the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Indian Point argues that releases of radiation into the river are acceptable because the Hudson is rated for industrial discharges. If the same water is to be reclassified as drinking water, that would set a very dangerous precedent.

Better way to drinking water

There are better options: smart growth planning, water conservation and efficiency, water reuse, repair of leaks, rainwater collection, and other low impact water sources, as well as non-emergency water ordinances to reduce lawn watering, a large source of summer water use.

In 2012, overflow crowds attended the only public hearing in April and 1,200 public comments were submitted, in addition to 24,500 signatures on petitions opposing the plant. The County Legislature voted 15-1 to ask the DEC for a hearing in which unresolved issues go before a judge. Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef and most of our state legislators have joined that call.

A decision appears to be imminent. The DEC is coming under tremendous pressure from corporate lobbyists in Albany to approve this desalination. We know that the governor can buffer the DEC from these pressures. Sierra Club is mobilizing calls to the governor every week. The governor must know that we hold him responsible for a decision based on the science, not on corporate profits.

We see this proposal as linked to fracking, in which our public water supply is threatened by industrial usage. We must rethink our environmental policy in order to protect the truly unrenewable resources: the water we drink, the air we breathe, our atmosphere.

Here’s the bottom line: scientists are telling us that water will be the new ‘oil’ of the next century, the resource that wars will be fought over. We are already seeing severe droughts and will see many more water shortages due to climate change, overpopulation, paving over natural surfaces, misuse and mismanagement of water.

If we move in the direction of desalination, we will be providing limitless amounts of water for unchecked consumption, without tapping into more sustainable options, all at the expense of the most urgent effort to reduce our energy use.

Whether or not you live in Rockland County, the task before us is to help shape a  sustainable water policy that will build a stronger economy with green jobs and protect our communities with smart growth while protecting our resources.

What you can do:

Call the governor today.  Tell him to grant an adjudicatory hearing (before judges), our best chance for a decision based on science.  CALL GOVERNOR CUOMO at (518) 474-8390 or email him.  For more information, visit

Peggy Kurtz and Gale Pisha are cochairs of the Desalination Committee of the Lower Hudson Group. Peggy is coordinator of the Group, and co-founder of the Rockland Water Coalition. Gale is a life member of the Club.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013
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