Our Town with William Kelly: Is desalination on tap for Palm Beach’s future water supply?

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  Utilities  |  June 28, 2022

Town leaders appear to be leaning toward desalination or membrane filtration as the means of providing a cleaner and safer source of water for Palm Beach residents in the future.

Precisely how that would happen and how much it would cost remains to be determined.

The Town Council, its Public Works Committee, town staff and town engineering consultant Kimley-Horn & Associates are eyeing several alternatives for development of a safe and reliable water supply after the town’s 30-year water supply agreement with the City of West Palm Beach expires in 2029.

Desalination is the process of removing salts and other minerals and contaminants from seawater, brackish water of wastewater. Though expensive, desalination has become a more common solution to obtaining fresh water for human consumption. Membrane filtration uses a high-pressure system to separate contaminants from water, and it is a form of desalination.

Town officials have not ruled out entering into a new agreement with West Palm Beach, provided it would involve development of a high-pressure membrane filtration system that could remove contaminants such as cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, from the treated water supply.

Last year, there was a temporary outbreak of cyanobacteria, which is harmful to people and pets, in West Palm Beach’s treated water supply.

West Palm Beach uses surface water, mainly from Lake Okeechobee and the Grassy Waters Preserve, which is treated at the city’s water plant on Banyan Boulevard. The plant uses traditional treatment methods of lime softening, chlorine and power activated carbon. West Palm Beach says the water is safe.

Town Council member Bobbie Lindsay, who chairs the council’s Public Works Committee, said at a June 14 council meeting that membrane filtration is the right choice for the town.

Cyanobacteria aren’t typically found in groundwater sources such as the deep Floridan aquifer and shallow Biscayne aquifer. But Lindsay said she doesn’t favor groundwater for the town because the aquifers are limited resources undergoing increasing pressure because of explosive population growth in South Florida.

“The source of the water is not as important if you are using membrane technology because you can use it to clean the water,” Lindsay said.

The alternatives being examined by the Public Works Committee, with support from town staff and Kimley-Horn, include the feasibility of:

  • Constructing a town-owned water desalination treatment plant immediately south of the Port of Palm Beach.
  • Constructing a town-owned desalination plant at an undetermined location in Riviera Beach, adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway.
  • Drilling horizontal water wells into the Intracoastal Waterway for a desalination plant. Horizontal wells, if feasible, could require far less land than a traditional wellfield, in which the wells are tapped by drilling vertically, according to Public Works Director Paul Brazil.
  • The use of a north-to-south “backbone” water distribution line that would be built in the Intracoastal Waterway. This submerged line would enable the town to avoid the disruption involved with replacing existing water main distribution lines on the island.

The committee is not considering the possibility of building a desalination plant in the town, Lindsay said.

The committee is asking the town staff to provide more detail about the cost and staffing that would be required if the town were to establish its own water utility.

Staff also is being asked to prepare exhibits showing the time required to replacing the aging water mains on the island; the difference between nanofiltration, brackish water reverse osmosis and seawater reverse osmosis; the costs of a renewal and replacement program for the water distribution system and for the treatment facilities; and a timeline for implementing each alternative with a narrative of its complexity and difficulty.

Lindsay said the list of information requested is large and ambitious but “it’s necessary and it’s part of our education … it’s really important that we all understand it together, so we all make the best decision.”

Lindsay also said she has personally discarded the option of entering a water supply agreement with Palm Beach County. The county’s treated water is a blend of water – some of which has been filtered with membrane technology and some of which is treated with traditional methods.

“That doesn’t seem to me to be a viable option for us,” Lindsay said. “Whatever we do, [the treatment] has to be membrane-based.”

Council President Margaret Zeidman, who is also a member of the two-person Public Works Committee, said that once the feasibility of the city various alternatives is determined, the town will begin to take a closer look at the costs.

The town needs to notify West Palm Beach of its intentions by October 2027, but the contract with the city can be renewed up to four times, with each renewal lasting five years, Zeidman said.
 

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