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Water-rich New England builds ... a desalination plant?

Brockton, Mass., seeks a certain supply to assure growth. Some worry about what such installations portend.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2008

These holding tanks will contain water at different stages of the desalination process. The tank on the left holds the raw water drawn from the Taunton River, on the right is the brine, or salt water, byproduct, and the tank in the center will hold drinking water to be sent by pipeline to customers.

Mark Thomson / The Christian Science Monitor

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Dighton, Mass.

Far from the arid US Southwest and its longstanding water woes, or even the Southeast and its new water skirmishes – attitudes are shifting in lush New England.

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That’s right. Despite abundant lakes and good rainfall, weak groundwater resources have crimped economic growth in some areas. As a result, the first big New England desalination plant turning brackish (salt water, fresh water mix) into fresh is expected to go online in Massachusetts this month.

That surprises some people, but not Robert Tannenwald, an economist and director of the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Two years ago he did a study showing that New England – contrary to public perceptions – is not at all water-rich region, but one that needs to manage its water supplies more carefully and look for new sources.

“There’s still a general mind-set [in New England] that water as a resource is not in scarce supply – but it is,” Mr. Tannenwald says. “We waste a lot of water. There’s a lot of leaky pipes around here. So economics has to kick in and water has to be priced accordingly for the waste to stop.”

Initially, the Aquaria desalination plant, hard by the Taunton River a few miles from its mouth on Narragansett Bay, will supply 4 million gallons of fresh water each day to the city of Brockton 16 miles away. Using a reverse-osmosis process, it will filter salt and other impurities from brackish water flowing up the river from the ocean during high tide.

But not everyone is happy about what could become a regional trend. “The fact we are building desalination plants in New England is really a tragedy,” says Christopher Kilian, clean-water program director for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. “This is a region that gets an immense amount of precipitation and where fresh water is being squandered. Before we start pouring costly desalinated water into the bucket, we should make the most of what we have and plug the leaks in the pipes.”

But Brockton has done that already, cutting water demand from around 11 million gallons per day to about 9 million. Now it needs the certainty that a steady supply of fresh water will bring to ensure economic growth, observers say.

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