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To Save Water? Or Desalinate. Rockland: That is the question

Photo: Lake DeForest, Rockland County.
Credit: Laurie Seeman.
Source: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

by Kim Martineau, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Water is on the minds of Rockland residents because the county’s main water provider, United Water NY, wants to build a treatment plant on the Hudson River that would deliver more freshwater to Rockland taps. Some people are in favor of boosting supply to this growing suburban region, a short drive from the George Washington and Tappan Zee bridges. Others are opposed, citing the cost, in energy and dollars, plus the danger to fish and other wildlife. As the project awaits a decision from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, a new debate on water consumption has emerged. Should people be encouraged, or even required, to use less? And if so, how?

Such questions are not easily addressed in Rockland County, where a for-profit company controls 90 percent of the water supply, land-use is decided locally by a patchwork of towns and villages and the water supply is regulated by several state agencies. The issues are laid out in a policy report by Stuart Braman, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Simon Gruber, an environmental planner in the Hudson Valley, under the auspices of the State University of New York, New Paltz.

A few interesting facts from the report:

  • Average indoor use by Rockland residents is lower than the national average, (62.2 gallons per person per day vs. 69), but Rockland is no water-saving paragon. The benchmark for a water-saving home is 45 gallons per person per day, according to the American Water Works Association while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that per capita use in a newly built house is 50 gallons per person per day..
  • While homeowners pay more for water if they use more, businesses and other non-residential users get a discount for added consumption.
  • Photo: Pilot desalination plant in Haverstraw, NY
    Credit: United Water

    Though Rockland has suffered a series of droughts in the last few decades, none of them compare to dry spells revealed in tree-ring data from the Hudson River Valley. A study led by Lamont scientist Ed Cook shows that far worse droughts have struck in the past ‘€” in 1570, 1630, 1700 and 1820, suggesting that such severe dry spells could happen again.

  • Green infrastructure, such as recycling used tap water and collecting stormwater runoff to recharge aquifers, are two ways to increase water supply; United Water says both approaches could help, but would not allow the company to meet its mandate to produce an extra 7.5 million gallons per day of capacity and might also be ‘€œcost-prohibitive.’€

See also:

Kim Martineau is a Science Writer in the Media Relations department at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY.

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