Thirsty Cape May finds a use for salty water

Beach resort installs desalination plant to purify ground water


CAPE MAY, N.J. - For decades, vacationers have flocked to this resort's broad beach on the Atlantic, its big hotels and its quaint pastel Victorian guest homes, bringing a welcome infusion of cash.

But the visitors have had a devastating effect on Cape May's underground water supply, depleting it to the point that, since 1950, two community wells have been abandoned after they became contaminated by salty ocean water that seeped in to replace the fresh water, and the use of two others has been curtailed.

With the salt threatening the town's fifth and last well, Cape May is installing the first desalination plant in the Northeast, becoming the northernmost of dozens of resorts and cities on the East Coast that have turned to desalting to offset strains on their water supplies. All are purifying brackish ground water that was once useless.

The move toward desalination began in the late 1970s in highly developed resorts on Florida's gulf coast like Sarasota, Fort Myers and Cape Coral, said James Birkette, a consultant on desalination from Maine. Boca Raton and Hollywood on Florida's Atlantic coast also rely on the plants. Recently, desalination moved northward to Mount Pleasant, S.C.; Cape Hatteras and Nags Head on North Carolina's Outer Banks; Newport News and Chesapeake in coastal Virginia, and now, to New Jersey's southern tip.

'A natural result'

"It's a natural result of population growth and overstress on aquifers," Birkette said of coastal cities' growing reliance on desalting plants.

The common denominators for the resorts, he said, are the steady arrival of new residents and tourists and the overpumping of aquifers. By allowing the resorts to use once-undrinkable salty water, the plants ease the strain on aquifers and help slow the incursion of salt water. When fresh water is removed in large quantities, rainwater and streams cannot replenish the aquifers quickly enough, and salt water then seeps in.

In Cape May, summer tourism swells the population to nearly 40,000 from about 4,500 and pushes daily water demand on busy weekends to about 2.7 million gallons from about 900,000 gallons, said Thomas Phelan, a former mayor and now head of Cape May's desalination committee.

Over the last 50 years, salt water has been spreading through Cape May's well field at an increasing speed. In the 1950s, the salt front crept northward at a rate of about 92 feet a year.

By the late 1980s, the incursion had sped up to about 271 feet a year, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1992.

Federal geologists have estimated that the salt front would reach Cape May's only unaffected well, No. 5, by 2000.

"We had to take 1998 as the year it was going to hit, to be on the safe side," Phelan said.

Other saltwater intrusions

The salt front encroaching on Cape May is not New Jersey's first. Two others in the last 20 years have ruined hundreds of wells in communities along Raritan Bay and on the Delaware River south of Camden.

Saltwater intrusion is also a problem, though a much less severe one, on Long Island, which gets all of its drinking water from aquifers. In Nassau County, water officials said, salty water has doomed two wells in Great Neck, which like Cape May is on a peninsula, and forced that community to drill new wells farther inland.

Cape May's $5 million desalination plant has allowed it to drive its first well into the deepest of five aquifers, which are stacked in layers beneath the Cape May Peninsula, and to begin treating the previously unused brackish water.

Officials hope to have the new plant operating by Labor Day. It is designed to treat 1 million gallons a day and can be expanded to treat 2 million gallons.

Federal and state loans and grants paid the plant's $5 million in construction costs. The plant will add $1.25 per 1,000 gallons to the resort's summertime water-sewage charge of $14.53 per 1,000 gallons. Phelan of the desalination committee said he expected his family's water bill to increase about $85 a year.

But the big hotels use from 1 million to 8.5 million gallons of water a year, city officials said. The new plant will add anywhere from $1,250 to $10,625 to their annual water bills, they said.

Residents and innkeepers seem more resigned to the rate increase than angry about it. After all, they have wrestled for years with the need for water conservation and threats the salt front poses for tourism, the backbone of Cape May's economy.

Pub date: 8/16/98

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