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On the saltwater front

Brockton sees an end to water shortages with New England's first desalination plant

Desalination -- the technology used to remove salt from saltwater -- is used mainly on islands and in deserts, as well as in a few US cities. But now Brockton is getting into the act, as the primary customer for what will be the first major desalination plant in New England.

The city will get more than 4 million gallons of water a day from the facility, which is rising this summer and is expected to be completed next spring on the banks of the Taunton River. That supply is expected to end decades of water shortages for Brockton residents and help the city compete for future growth in the booming but water-challenged region.

Brackish river water will be drawn in to the plant, which is in Dighton, purified and desalted, and then sent through a 16-mile pipeline, now about 40 percent built, to Brockton.

The smaller community of Norton is the only other prospective buyer so far. It will purchase 150,000 gallons of desalted water a day.

The $70 million project is a joint venture of Inima, a Spanish multinational utility company, and Bluestone Energy Services, a small, Norwell-based firm, which hatched the idea for the plant 15 years ago.

"Brockton stuck with us," said Erik Nottleson, project manager for Inima USA Corp., which has an office in Brockton. Inima became the principal investor in the project after a Pittsburgh-based utility dropped out in 2002.

Inima also has desalination facilities in Brazil, Chile, Europe, Mexico, and North Africa. The company is looking to expand into the United States.

"I think you will see more cities consid ering it," said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the Denver-based American Water Works Association. "In the next 10 to 20 years, there will be increasing interest in desalting, especially of brackish water."

Officials in Hull are exploring the construction of a desalination plant to serve the town and to sell water to nearby communities. Hull currently gets its water from a private water company with wells in Hingham.

For now, the price of desalted seawater will be higher than water from conventional sources. A Brockton ratepayer can expect to see an increase in an annual bill of between $30 and $50, said Brockton Water System m anager Brian Creedon.

Economic success for the venture is not guaranteed. The city currently does not need all of the 4.07 million gallons a day it is committed to purchasing, and is looking to resell some of it. The company also will try to market the water (a little more than 750,000 gallons a day) that Brockton and Norton will not be purchasing.

Nottleson said that when the plant is running successfully, surrounding towns and private developments will become more interested in the new supply.

"When you have a water ban in town and the lawns are going brown, you are going to be interested if you can get a couple hundred thousand gallons and pay a little more," Nottleson said.

Fast - growing S outheastern Massachusetts is perceived as a favorable area for a desalination.

"The existing resources have been tapped out for years," Nottleson said. "Desalination becomes economically viable in this region, which has been industrially developed and heavily settled."

Brockton officials say the water from desalination is needed to allow the city to grow.

"We are using the fact that we have water as a marketing tool," said Mary Waldron, director of the Brockton 21st Century Corp., the city's public-private development agency. "This will shelve the myth that Brockton is water-deprived."

Brockton has been on a quest for water since the 19th century, when thriving shoe factories and a booming population outstripped local supplies.

In 1899, the Legislature authorized Brockton to take water from Silver Lake, b ut the city's aging pipes and limited supply became increasingly inadequate when population surged again in the 1950s. By the 1980s, the state banned new water hook ups, halting new development and helping to send the local economy into a downward spiral.

While Brockton was searching for a solution to its water woes, Jeffrey Hanson, an engineer for a local consulting firm, Bluestone, came up with the idea for a desalination plant on the Taunton River. Hanson pitched the concept to a special state panel studying the water needs of Southeastern Massachusetts, and in 1993, the group's final report listed desalination as one of three options. The other two -- diverting the Taunton River and connecting to the Massachuetts Water Resources Authority system -- failed to gain political support.

Former Brockton m ayor John T. Yunits Jr. championed desalination as a cure for the city's water ills, and shortly before leaving office, he signed the agreement to purchase water from the Inima-Bluestone venture, which is now called Aquaria. The deal allowed Aquaria to obtain financing and start construction of the plant.

Mayor James E. Harrington, who replaced Yunits last year, has supported the project, as have most other local leaders.

The city started a program of pipe replacement in the early 1990s that has cut water use significantly. The development ban was lifted in 1996, and last year, a long standing prohibition on lawn watering ended.

Pat Ciaramella, executive director of the Old Colony Planning Council, said the new water supply should allow Brockton and surrounding communities to continue to attract development. "It is a necessity for growth in the future," he said.

The plant is 14 miles upriver from the Braga Bridge in Fall River, where the Taunton River empties into Mount Hope Bay. Saltwater from the ocean flows into the river there, moving in and out with the tides all the way to the Dighton-Taunton line, where the plant is located.

While desalination facilities are most easily built next to oceans or bays , they also can process brackish well water or brackish water from tidal rivers. The only other major desalination plant in the Northeast, in Cape May, N.J., treats water from wells that were contaminated by saltwater.

Greek sailors distilled seawater for drinking as early as the fourth century BC, heating salt water and capturing vapor. A more modern technique -- the one used at the Dighton plant -- is reverse osmosis, in which saltwater is forced through a membrane that filters out salt and other impurities.

Desalination's advantage is the abundance of saltwater, while its main disadvantage is cost. It requires more energy than pumping water from a well or reservoir.

For Brockton officials, those concerns are overshadowed by the prospect of putting the days of water shortages behind them for good.

"We need to make sure," Creedon said, "this is not going to be a problem in the future."

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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