Florida Officials Not Deterred by Desalination Expense Estimates

Jan. 13, 2004

It seems the only southern Florida city interested in building a plant to convert seawater to drinking water may be the most expensive place to do it.

According to a report today by Orlando Sentinel staff writer Ludmilla Lelis, the results are in from a study comparing the costs of building a desalination plant at five different sites. The study found that building a plant in New Smyrna Beach could cost much more than building one near Titusville, in Jacksonville or in Daytona Beach.

New Smyrna Beach officials' want further analysis before they'll abandon the idea.

"It would be premature to throw out any sites based on this report," New Smyrna Beach Utilities Commission director Ron Vaden told Lelis. "There hasn't been enough analysis. If there is enough people involved in a desal project, the city would be receptive."

Cost is not the only factor that could determine where east Central Florida's first desalination plant is built, according to Glenn Forrest, a consultant for the St. Johns River Water Management District who oversaw the desalination options study.

"Ultimately, it's a utility's decision, and if they are in an area where more groundwater is not available, and they have to find alternative sources, they may be willing to pay for it," he said. "There's not too many other options."

New Smyrna Beach could remain a prime site for desalination because of the newly formed Water Authority of Volusia, the region's first such body empowered to manage water use and build water-treatment plants. JEA, the Jacksonville utility, and Brevard County officials don't want to desalt water in the short term.

"The desal option isn't our next, most economical option," said Brevard County water resources department director Dick Martens.

The price-comparison study is only a first step toward desalination. The water district is offering $200,000 for cities or utilities interested in doing more in-depth environmental studies or running a pilot project at an existing site, Forrest said.

"We need a partner. We need a utility to move forward to say they want to do this," he said.

Regional water managers hired R.W. Beck Inc. of Orlando to find out how much it would cost to convert seawater into potable water. The sites chosen for the study included the W.E. Swoope Generating Station in New Smyrna Beach, the FP&L and Reliant Energy power plants near Titusville, a Jacksonville power plant and a Daytona Beach wastewater treatment plant.

The Jacksonville and Brevard plants have one big advantage over the Volusia sites: a power plant that already pulls in nearby river water. Those power plants already have the infrastructure in place to take in and discharge water and also can use discharge water to dilute the brine left over from the desalting process. Tampa Bay Water's $110 million desal plant, the largest in North America, was built adjacent to a TECO power plant.

Building next to a power plant saves money. Desalting 10 million gallons of water a day at the Jacksonville or Brevard sites would cost a little more than $3 per 1,000 gallons. To desalt 30 million gallons a day, the price drops to between $2.57 and $2.69.

By comparison, water from a plant in New Smyrna would cost nearly $5 per 1,000 gallons if the plant produced 5 million gallons a day, or as low as $3.53 per 1,000 gallons if the plant produced 15 million gallons per day. The New Smyrna Beach estimates are based on lower production because it doesn't have as great a source of raw water, the report said.

Water pumped from the aquifer usually costs a utility around $1 per 1,000 gallons, and since the desalted water would probably be mixed with aquifer water when sold to the public, that would bring the costs per gallon down. "It is still affordable and still economically feasible," Forrest said.

A New Smyrna plant could cost more because it lacks pipes and machinery to pump in and out the vast quantities of water, the costs of permitting such a facility, and construction of a pipeline to pump the leftover brine to the ocean, since there is no other water to dilute it.

A desalination plant next to Daytona Beach's Bethune Point wastewater treatment plant could produce potable water starting at $3.93 per 1,000 gallons to produce 5 million gallons a day or as low as $3.11 for 15 million gallons a day.

A plant producing 10 million gallons a day could cover most of the deficit that Volusia County is projected to face during the next 20 years.

Source: The Orlando Sentinel