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.
The technology, meanwhile, was viewed as an increasingly viable option in the Northeast. In a 1995 report, the Army Corps of Engineers had included desalination as one of three possible solutions for the South Shore’s water shortages. A handful of communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, facing ongoing water shortages of their own, were also exploring desalination.
It took six years of negotiations, but in 2002 Brockton signed a contract with Bluestone, which had joined forces with a Spanish company called Inima that had desalination plants in Europe and the Middle East. They formed a new company called Aquaria Water, but as the plan moved forward, Aquaria struggled with red tape—the company needed about two dozen permits to build the plant and move the water. Delays followed, and costs rose by a quarter, to $75 million.
Aquaria wanted to ensure that it would have at least one steady customer, so Brockton agreed to pay the company $120 million over 20 years, starting with the year the plant went online. With the contract, though, the city was merely paying for the right to buy water. If it decided to actually purchase the desalinated water, then it would be on the hook for even more money, up to $1.23 per 1,000 gallons. The council believed that it would never have to pay all of those costs, however, because neighboring towns would eventually begin purchasing water, too, ultimately lowering the price for everyone.
Brockton’s desalination plant finally opened for business in the summer of 2008, to little fanfare. Water-commission chair Stephen Pike came for a tour, declaring that he found Aquaria to be well managed and brimming with state-of-the-art technology. According to the Brockton Enterprise, each member of the commission received a framed aerial photograph of the plant, perhaps intended to be displayed alongside the dire image of a dried-up Silver Lake from 20 years before. Pike told the newspaper, “If anybody says you can’t build a desalination plant, you’re wrong. It’s there.”
It was there—but by then Brockton didn’t need it anymore. Conservation measures may have once seemed like little more than a symbolic response to the city’s problems, but they wound up doing more to solve the water woes than anything else. Brockton reduced its daily usage to fewer than 65 gallons of water per person—part of an agreement with the state to approve new hookups—and its water department started replacing aging pipes in the 1990s, shoring up a system that had been plagued with leaks. Schools and hospitals were retrofitted with modern plumbing systems, and new building standards were put into place. In 1994 and again in 2010, the city launched projects to fit homes with new meters that kept better track of how much water people were using, allowing the city to send out accurate water bills and encouraging homeowners to turn off the tap. Even the depressing fact that businesses were continuing to leave the area had a silver lining: It drove down overall consumption. Between 1976 and 2012, total average daily water use in Brockton dropped from more than 13 million gallons to just over 9 million, an amount that the city’s existing system could handle without help from Aquaria.
The success of the conservation effort took everybody by surprise. “In retrospect, we didn’t need the desal,” Yunits says, “but we had no choice.” The city ordered 1.5 million gallons of water a day from Aquaria in the fall of 2010 because of low rainfall, but it hasn’t ordered any at all since May 2011, when it conducted a test to make sure the water was still okay. Aquaria today is no more than an emergency backup.
Robert Tannenwald, an adjunct lecturer in public economics at Brandeis and one of the authors of the 2005 climate-change study that showed droughts on the horizon for New England, says that despite technological advances, desalination remains one of the most expensive and energy-intensive ways to get water, and should be an option of last resort. “First, fix the leaky pipes,” he says. “And, if possible, create a couple more reservoirs. That would be more cost-effective.”
Aquaria, with its enormous building and operating expenses, cost overruns, and lack of use, has a parallel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which invested in a trash incinerator that’s run up nearly $350 million in debt—another well-intentioned bet on the future by a working-class city that has turned out to be a boondoggle.
More than a decade after the contract was signed, the city of Brockton remains Aquaria’s only customer. Its South Shore neighbors have been wary of the cost, daunted by the required state permitting process, or not in need of the water. Little surprise, then, that the plant hasn’t functioned as the economic generator that the city had hoped. Last year, Brockton got its first new supermarket in a decade, and successfully lured an industrial laundry away from Fall River with a $1 million tax break, but biotech and other forward-looking industries have not appeared.
Today, downtown buildings stand empty, as the Social Security Administration, the IRS, and the Brockton Enterprise have all left their former office spaces for cheaper spots at the edge of town. A vast field of rubble on the north side is all that’s left of the old Howard Johnson’s manufacturing plant. The city government is fiscally solvent, but its infrastructure is crumbling and homeowners are struggling. The foreclosure rate remains the highest in the state, and 7,000 homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. And thanks to the Aquaria contract, the average water bill in the city has jumped 60 percent—from $200 to $320 annually—to pay for water that the city doesn’t use.
Many Brockton residents are demanding that the city find a way out of the contract. “Six million dollars a year going out, and we’re not getting anything in return?” says Ed Byers, a local business owner who has become a leader in the fight against the contract. “Six million a year when we need more police on the street! There’s a real rage.”
The Aquaria plant is not Brockton’s only problem, but it’s an easy target for citizen frustration. And Aquaria itself has done little to win over residents. Sections of its website are still “under construction” nearly five years after the plant opened. When I contacted Aquaria for this story, the company seemed surprised that anyone was calling. Rebecca McEnroe, the project manager I spoke to, told me that the company is complying with the contract “100 percent,” but she declined to answer further questions, or to let me tour the plant.
Last year, Inima, Aquaria’s Spanish parent company, was sold to GS Engineering & Construction, a South Korean conglomerate. Aquaria is losing money despite Brockton’s annual payments, so some city leaders are hopeful that the new owners might be interested in selling the plant to the city at a reasonable price, which would allow Brockton to use it as desired, with no annual fees. If that happened, however, there would still be the question of whether Brockton will ever actually need desalinated water.
Leon Awerbuch, a director of the International Desalination Association, says that Aquaria’s technology is solid, but of questionable necessity. “They put in a really, very good system,” Awerbuch says. But he has little faith that the plant will be needed any time soon—although with climate change, “you never know.”
Hanson, the chief desalination proponent, admits that things didn’t turn out as he’d expected. But he continues to believe in the concept. “It’s the best deal out there, and it’s drought-proof,” he says. “Now, it turns out that their water use went way down. Nobody could have predicted that.”
Brockton’s current mayor, Linda Balzotti, promised last fall to have the city’s legal department look into whether the city could get out of the contract, but just this past March the city’s lawyers concluded that there was no escape hatch.
Balzotti says the Aquaria plant may yet prove to be a good investment. “I understand people’s frustration,” she says. “Here we are now based on a decision that had to be made 15 years ago. So who knows where we’ll be 15 years from now? Maybe it’ll be a whole different place, and everybody’ll be like, ‘Look at Brockton! Brockton did the right thing.’”
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