Company seeks permit to desalinate water for Ga. coast

ATLANTA - A modest plan to turn seawater off the Georgia coast into a new drinking water supply has surfaced more than two years after the shelving of a far more ambitious proposal involving the city of Atlanta.

But environmental advocates are just as skeptical about a pilot project limited to 50,000 gallons a day as they were about pumping millions of gallons of treated sea water hundreds of miles from the coast to the metro area.

A company based in Jonesboro that specializes in a process known as "desalination'' is seeking state permits to build a small plant at one of several potential sites along the coast next year.

The fresh water produced by the plant would be sold locally as an alternative to the ground and surface water supplies the rapidly growing region now relies upon.

"Half a million to a million more people are likely to come to the coast in the next 20 years,'' said Aaron Crosby, chief operating officer for Aquasis. "With the increase in demand for water along the coast, we see some immediate opportunities to benefit the environment and meet the demand.''

The company's proposal appears to have at least two factors working in its favor. Aquasis officials have indicated a willingness to foot the bill for the plant without asking the state for any money.

Also, they're focusing strictly on coastal Georgia.

Bolder plans

Three years ago, water planners from Atlanta asked for $250,000 in state funds to help underwrite a $500,000 feasibility study of plans to build three desalination plants along the coast from Hutchinson Island to St. Marys.

The treated water was to be pumped along three pipelines to the metro region.

But the study fizzled early in 2004 when Gov. Sonny Perdue yanked the money out of the state budget after the General Assembly had agreed to the city's request.

While desalination has begun to catch on in other parts of the country, it invariably is being tried only in populous areas close to the coast, including Florida and


Atlanta officials projected the cost of delivering 1,000 gallons of desalinated water at $5 to $5.50, about twice the going market rate at the time.

That alone was enough to make it a political non-starter.

"In my wildest dreams, I can't see the practicality of pumping desalinated water from here to Atlanta,'' said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, a member of a newly formed legislative study committee considering desalination and chief sponsor of the resolution creating the panel. "I can't see that getting any support.''

But Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, co-chairman of the committee, said the economics of desalination along the coast are beginning to look


"The technology has definitely come a long way,'' he said. "It's a lot cheaper than it was 10 years ago.''

Environmental benefits

Crosby said desalination also could help address concerns about the effects of saltwater intrusion along the coast.

Years of pumping from the Floridan aquifer have drawn down groundwater levels in some areas, allowing salt water to infiltrate farther upstream from the coast, a process that has damaged fragile marshlands and reduced the crab population.

"We'd like to be able to relieve coastal dependence on the aquifer,'' Crosby said.

But Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said coastal aquifers already are starting to recover from the effects of overpumping because the region's longtime major water consumer, the pulp industry, has been pulling up stakes during the last several years.

"They're trying to solve a problem that's going away,'' he said.

Herring said environmentalists also are concerned about the massive amount of energy desalination requires and how the company would dispose of the salty brine produced as a byproduct of the process.

Tolleson said the study committee, which is due to deliver its recommendations to the full legislature by Dec. 1, hopes to get at those issues.

"We're trying to get an understanding of whether the technology is there to make it affordable and whether we can do it from an environmental impact perspective,'' he said. "If a pilot project is done, that will answer a lot of