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Cape May Gives Green Light for New Desalination Plant

A Cape May Water and Sewer Employee explains equipment in the desalination plant in 2019. City council approved the award of an engineering services contract to construct its much-needed new water treatment plant Sept. 6

By Vince Conti

CAPE MAY – City council approved the award of an engineering services contract for its much-needed water treatment plant project Sept. 6. The award went to CME Associates of Middlesex County. CME has been studying the existing water treatment plant and has developed options for its modernization.
In April, the council heard a report on a recommended $33 million option for replacing its existing desalination plant. That plan included expanding the capacity and preventing iron infiltration from the Cohansey Aquifer well. The city’s water treatment facility supplies water to its own residents, to the boroughs of West Cape May and Cape May Point, and to the Coast Guard Base. At present, the city does not meet state regulations for ‘firm capacity,’ the water system’s ability to meet demand even if it loses its largest well. 
What the governing body heard from its consultants in April was a firm conviction that retrofitting the existing plant is not a viable option. Several problems doom that option, including the small size of the existing structure, the position of electric controls which do not meet existing code and the need to introduce iron removal technology. There are also formidable challenges involved in renovating the existing structure while maintaining daily water distribution. 
Cape May was on the cutting edge of technology 25 years ago when it introduced desalination as a solution to increasing salt-water intrusion in its wells. Now its plant is aged, its technology is outmoded, and demand for water has outstripped the water system’s ability to supply sufficient quantities. Development in West Cape May has been stifled by Cape May’s inability to increase the borough’s water allocation.
CME favors a new plant on adjacent land. This plant would be equipped with modern filtration technology, but still utilize the reverse osmosis approach. It would increase the draw of water by 50% from the Atlantic City Aquifer while also improving the ability to use the Cohansey Aquifer with iron removal technology. The project would also involve a modernization of the electrical infrastructure. 
At an estimated cost of $33 million, the project requires an all-out effort to tap into federal and state infrastructure and water system funding. Triad Associates was another part of the team that presented to the city in April. The expectation is that Triad will lead the effort to garner grant funds for the project. 
The team was assembled by former state senator Nickolas Asselta who heads a Vineland consulting company, Aqua America. 
The vote on the contract award was four in the affirmative and one against. The no vote was cast by Deputy Mayor Stacy Sheehan who expressed concern that the planned increase in capacity was not sufficient. She also questioned whether the CME team had the right credentials for a project involving desalination by reverse osmosis. 
Councilman Shaine Meier countered that the effort is “the most important project we have before us.” He went on to say that CME, Triad and Aqua America have “what it takes to get the dollars we need.”
The award is an indication that the April 2022 CME proposal resonated with the council and the city is prepared to move forward, at least with pre-construction activities. 
As Mayor Zack Mullock made clear at the Sept. 6 meeting, funding will be critical. Mullock said the city will “not be able to do it without grants.”
Are you an expert in desalination? Reverse osmosis? Do you drink water in Cape May? Email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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