When a prolonged drought threatened its future, the financially strapped city of Brockton invested millions in a state-of-the-art facility that would turn saltwater fresh—and save the city in the process. That was the plan, anyway.
On the western banks of the brackish Taunton River, 45 miles south of Boston, sits a windowless one-story building. Located in the town of Dighton, the structure is surrounded by a chainlink fence. Out back, hidden from the road, are three enormous water tanks, each big enough to submerge a house in. Together, they make up a marvel of modern technology: the Aquaria Taunton River Desalination Plant.
Inside the building, Aquaria’s machinery performs the difficult task of turning saltwater into fresh. Intake pipes placed in the river—which is partly salty here because of its proximity to the ocean—suck in water and send it through a hollow-fiber ultrafiltration system, which removes pollution and large particles such as algae, bacteria, and soil. The filtered water is then pushed through tubes containing layer upon layer of delicate polyamide membranes, which have pores that are so tiny—one-100,000th the diameter of a human hair—that they trap the salt in a process called “reverse osmosis.” The result is pure H₂O, plus a briny leftover that’s sent back out to sea at high tide. Aquaria, which cost $75 million to build, and which employs the same advanced technology that plants in Abu Dhabi and Texas use to produce fresh water, can generate up to 5 million gallons a day.
After the water is cleaned, it can be pumped through a 20-inch-wide pipeline to Brockton, which lies 16 miles to the north. Brockton paid for most of the plant, which opened in 2008, in an attempt to alleviate the effects of a decades-long drought that delivered such a beating to the local economy that it led to an epidemic of vacant storefronts and even a homeless encampment. The desalination plant was hailed as Brockton’s savior, a project that would revitalize the city.
Today, however, the plant sits idle. In fact, if the Aquaria plant has had any effect at all, it has been to make Brockton’s problems worse. Five years after the facility opened, in 2008, none of the fresh water it produces is reaching the faucets and gardens of homes in Brockton. Instead, the plant produces just enough water to keep its systems working, and then flushes it all down the drain.
By 1900, Brockton had ridden the wave of the Industrial Revolution to become the “shoe manufacturing capital of America.” City leaders, faced with an overwhelming demand for water from factories and a burgeoning population, made the farsighted decision to secure water rights to nearby Silver Lake, a 640-acre body of water. Silver Lake had the best water around. Older residents remember a time when they could see the bottom. The pure, clear drinking water it supplied to Brockton became the envy of the region.
The city’s water troubles started in the 1960s, when a tract-housing boom began to strain the supply, and came to a head during a long drought in the 1980s. Aerial photos taken then show Silver Lake reduced to a puddle surrounded by a dust bowl of dried mud, an environmental nightmare that had repercussions for the entire Jones River watershed in eastern Plymouth County.
At first glance, eastern Massachusetts seems like an unlikely location for a drought. The region receives more than 45 inches of precipitation annually, and the landscape is riddled with ponds and swamps. The truth, though, is that our shallow, porous underground aquifers, as well as our hilly topography, allow the ample rainfall and snowmelt to run quickly into the sea. In 2005, the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston issued a report warning that the region could face increasingly severe water shortages.
This was old news to the residents of Brockton, where the situation was so bad that in 1986 the state barred the city from approving any new water hookups until it found more water. The ban meant no one could build. As the rest of the state experienced the Massachusetts Miracle—rising employment and income through the 1980s—Brockton hemorrhaged jobs. Unemployment soared to more than 14 percent by 1991, and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. “That’s when Brockton started to slide—rapidly,” recalls Jack Yunits, the city’s mayor from 1996 to 2006. “No business could expand here. Companies stopped coming here. With no growth on the tax base, taxes started soaring. Then the layoffs came. Brockton was a mess. By 1995 they were calling Brockton ‘the Beirut of America.’”
The early years of Yunits’s tenure were consumed by the water question. The water commission, which was appointed by the mayor and city council and included three engineers, met several times a month to discuss possible solutions. Wells were proposed, but the city’s groundwater was too polluted. Taking fresh water from the Taunton River, upstream from where Aquaria sits today, was deemed environmentally destructive. At one point, the water commission voted in favor of hooking up to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), a state system that carries water from huge reservoirs in the western and central parts of the state to Boston and its suburbs. But Brockton’s city council was worried about the MWRA’s rising costs, and about paying for projects that didn’t benefit the city directly.
Brockton took conservation measures, but they were seen as little more than a stopgap. Americans were using more and more water, not less, and city consultants predicted that Brockton’s demand for water would grow from 12 million to 15 million gallons a day, far outstripping the capacity of Silver Lake. Brockton seemed to be facing a hopeless situation.
But in 1996, a local utilities engineer named Jeff Hanson approached the city with a radical idea. What if Brockton could get its water from the sea?
The idea wasn’t as crazy as it seemed. At the time, Hanson was working for Bluestone Energy Services, a boutique engineering firm in Norwell, and had been exploring desalination for a few years. In April 1996, Hanson and a colleague named John Murphy laid out their case to the water commission. After explaining how reverse osmosis works, Hanson told the commission that desalination plants had already been built in the southern U.S. and as far north as New Jersey. The only reason desalination hadn’t yet made it up here, he said, was because it was more expensive than the traditional method of using a reservoir to trap precipitation. But Brockton didn’t have any good reservoir options. Hanson said that Bluestone had already negotiated a deal that would allow the proposed desalination plant to buy power at wholesale prices. And the firm already had an option to purchase land on the Taunton River from a local junk collector. Brockton’s water rates would hardly change, Murphy said—a 2 percent increase would cover the cost.
The commissioners were skeptical. William Zoino, an MIT-trained civil engineer and a cofounder of GZA GeoEnvironmental, an environmental-engineering firm, was one of the three engineers on the water commission at the time. He thought a better bet would be connecting with the MWRA, or just drilling a well in a neighboring town. Mayor Yunits wasn’t a supporter at first, either.
But Hanson’s family had helped put the city on the right water path before. His grandfather, a government shoe inspector, had been on the water commission back in the early 1900s, when the city was developing a plan for Silver Lake. A desalination plant, Hanson insisted, would be the city’s chance to get in on the ground floor of a venture that could prove to be a regional asset. City leaders started to come around to Hanson’s logic, swayed by the idea that once Brockton—which had good highway and rail access, along with a capable manufacturing workforce—was water-rich, it could attract industry, perhaps even biotech companies, to the South Shore. And that helped marshal support for the plant, which came to be seen as a way forward for the local economy.