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Was United Water’s Desalination Plant A Prudent Decision?

Harriet Cornell, Chairwoman Rock Co Legislatureby Harriet Cornell,

Rockland County Legislator Harriet Cornell has asked the NYS Public Service Commission to start a Prudence Investigation to determine if United Water’s desalination plant proposal was prudent and practical after dismissing less costly alternative water supply options.

Few would deny that the situation regarding “need” for a new water supply for Rockland has changed substantially since 2006. We now have important new information including the USGS study; the adoption of Rockland Tomorrow: Rockland County Comprehensive Plan after an 18-month planning process with wide community involvement and input; changing demographics with a greatly increased and growing elderly population; huge public interest in avoiding the expense and environmental hazards of a desalination plant on the Hudson; the PSC staff report indicating that need for a new supply may never exist—but if it does, it won’t be before 2020; and most recently, new steps by the County of Rockland to take charge of its own water future. I have attached a copy of the legislation creating a Task Force on Water Resources Management which was passed unanimously by the Rockland County Legislature and signed into law by the County Executive on June 19. Planning by a working group has been taking place, and the Task Force will be up and running within weeks.

Old Information:

What has not changed is the definition of “prudence.” According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, prudence means: “Practical wisdom as distinguished from speculative wisdom.” The definition goes on to say that prudence is “the skill or sagacity in the management of practical, especially business, affairs; circumspection and discretion in selecting, adjusting, or utilizing means to a desired end; provident or cautious use of resources. . . there is an implication of self-interest when prudence is forgotten.”

Prudence “Forgotten” by United Water

Prudence has indeed been “forgotten” by the management of United Water New York. as demonstrated by the many highly imprudent decisions made—and the unwillingness to select, adjust or utilize means that acknowledge new information.

The 2006 decision did not mandate a single project, but United Water New York (UWNY) quickly seized on a project to build a desalination plant and use the water from Haverstraw Bay in the Hudson River. The search for the Proposed Project as described in the DEIS shows that UWNY, while presenting two alternatives—the long-planned Ambrey Pond and Wastewater Reuse– dismissed a list of other possibilities as not providing safe yield, including enhanced water conservation and green infrastructure; enhanced leak management; increased storage at Lake DeForest; Quarry Reservoir Alternatives; and better water system management with Lake DeForest permit modification. There was no assessment of how a combination of alternative options could provide additional supply.

  • The fact that UWNY did not provide an assessment of how a combination of alternative options could provide additional water supply was imprudent.
  • It was imprudent for UWNY to fail to use consistent measures and commonly accepted industry standards in its DEIS to determine comparative costs for alternate projects that could achieve the same goals.
  • The fact that UWNY did not provide information on whether the costs and impacts on the environment from alternatives would be less than the Proposed Project was imprudent.
  • It was imprudent of UWNY to insufficiently analyze or evaluate the potential savings in terms of costs and water usage of a comprehensive conservation program when there has been major success in the Northeast (NYC DEP and Massachusetts Water Resources Authority) that resulted in negating the need for capital-intensive infrastructure to increase water supplies.
  • It was imprudent for UWNY to submit a DEIS with such analytic deficiencies that the cost sections were described by ECONorthwest, a respected economics, finance and planning organization, as “almost useless” for those seeking to independently verify cost results with the most significant omission being the lack of documentation on how the construction, operations and maintenance costs would impact ratepayers.
  • It was imprudent of UWNY to design an energy-intensive solution—a desalination plant which requires electricity to pump water from the Hudson to solve the problem of occasional peak demand which has other non-capital solutions, which have not been equitably studied.
  • The insufficient analysis by UWNY in its DEIS was imprudent because it has fostered the impression that the company is blocking an environmentally sustainable future for Rockland while adding great financial burden on rate-payers.
  • It has been imprudent for UWNY to continue expending money on this project, which has not yet been approved under the laws and regulations of the State of New York.
  • It has been imprudent for UWNY to continue expending money on this project in the face of decreasing demand for water—demand which will further decrease as rates go up and a surcharge is added to rate-payers’ burden—and which could result in a stranded investment.

A Prudence Investigation is warranted for the many reasons I have cited, and I respectfully call for the Public Service Commission to take this action on behalf of the public it serves.

Forensic Audit

It is also essential that the PSC order a forensic audit to clarify the extravagant and unexplained major costs being claimed by United Water as a repayment/surcharge for the work it has done on a project that has not been approved and which is not needed. Invoices submitted to the PSC show names of professionals, hourly rates and hours allegedly worked. There is no explanation of what work was done. The top four engineering firms received approximately $24 million out of $39 million in direct vendor costs. Two law firms received $5.3 million, but the bills are so heavily redacted, that it is impossible to know the services that were provided for multi-millions of dollars. Every page of the $39 million in costs has been stamped “Confidential.” This is totally unacceptable public policy—and it makes a mockery of the hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours which have been and continue to be expended by Rockland citizens in order to research and present to the PSC and other state agencies accurate information. On behalf of all ratepayers, residential and commercial, I hereby request a forensic audit.

I urge the Public Service Commission to halt UWNY’s continuation of the Haverstraw Water Supply Project and stop the continued push for permits and spending of ratepayer funds.

Harriet Cornell is the Chairwoman of the Environmental Committee at the Rockland County Legislature.

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