Thursday, September 23, 2010

How not to find water!

Historically, Antigua was one of the last islands to be colonized simply because of the never ending water shortage the island has been faced with. With very little rainfall comparatively and without large enough mountains for streams and rivers, Antigua has always been a dry island. Early European colonists knew living here would be tough and it wasn't until England realized the strategic importance of Antigua's coastline that the island became attractive. From the first colonial structures to the most modern buildings today, water catchment has always been important. As mentioned in one of my earlier blogs about the oil disaster here, Antigua finally tried to fix the water problem with a massive desalination plant sometime in the 1980s. This was a huge step in the right direction and for most of my adult life water shortages were a thing of the past.
Sadly for one reason or another, the main desalination plant has not been able to keep up with demand. Depending on who you speak with, the reasons for this failure can be blamed on one political party or another. Anyway, that isn't the purpose of this blog. This blog is about an attempt to start up another smaller desalination plant at one of Antigua's favorite beaches which ultimately has been an unbelievable "cock-up".
Before I explain what is going on at Ffryes beach I should first explain what has happened there over the past few years:
Without proper permission, or any study from the Environment Division a massive dredging and sand mining project was undertaken a few years ago which took hundreds of truck loads of sand from the swamp behind the beach. Even after the swamp was dug up right up to the high water mark on the CocoBay Beach, more sand mining continued between the swamp and Ffryes Beach as seen in this photo where the holes were filled with dirt after the sand was excavated:
This unfortunate area already had already seen heavy mining in the hillside behind the hotel and swamp. I don't know what was done with all of the sand that was mined from this area but I am sure that someone became very wealthy out of this environmental disaster. Needless to say that this area has had major industrial work done over the past few years. These photos were taken in October 2008 and show you the effect the sand mining has had on the beach which in a high tide merges with the swamp. Notice the mined hillside in the back too:

This was all quite odd when you think about it from a tourism perspective and also from a nationalist perspective. I say that because Ffryes Beach had always been thought of in my mind as "The People's Beach", a undeveloped beach where people had always visited especially on public holidays.
Also going on was the construction of several small tourism developments. Dennis Beach Bar at one end, the very controversial Tamarind Hills development (which i will leave for another day) on the other and several other developments nearby too. I guess that's another story which leads me astray from the topic at hand. Desalination!
After all of this had gone down, the government's Water Department decided that they would start a desalination plant on the beach.
According to the water manager, they had first thought that a better site would be next to the Urlings Fisheries facility where the waters are clearer and an industrial facility already existed. Fisheries said "No Way", so Ffryes was the next alternative according to the manager.
Instead of doing an extensive study to see if the area would be a feasible site for desalination, construction began at the same time that studies and test wells were being drilled. Well after well was drilled without and success. Hydrogen Sulphide was found in most of the wells and there was never a fast enough flow of water into the well from the surrounding material which was mostly made up of clay. Clay isn't permeable enough to permit the smooth flow of filtered brackish water. In addition to the clay, the little sand that was found in the wells was also too fine for water to flow quickly.
In desperation the drilling machine was even positioned right on the beach just to prove that the wells were not going to work in the area. That last and final well couldn't get sufficient water either and the machine was finally taken away. The building seen in the video below which is where the main desalination process takes place as well as housing the water distribution mechanism. This was all already completed by this time the last well failed to produce enough water.

Well what good is a water facility without water? None, so the only choice was to go directly into the sea. Why wasn't this done to start with? After all the facility is a desalination plant right?
Well Reverse Osmosis plants (more here) produce what we call fresh water from what we generally call salt water. This is accomplished by using a series of very specific filtration processes. Ideally wells are used because water that "wells up" inside a well has been filtered by the earth surrounding the well. A coastline well gives you fairly clean filtered salt water which ideally needs considerably less filtration than water that is taken directly from the sea.
With that in mind, water taken from the sea in an area where the water is clear and sediment free will require less filtration and maintenance than water that is taken from a murky coastline.
Here we come to another huge problem with Ffreys Beach. Whenever there is ground swell usually during the cold front season between November until May, the coastline along the coast where Ffryes is located is terribly murky. The seabed is a very fine sandy bottom that remains shallow for miles. I am not an engineer, but after spending most of my life on the water in and around Antigua, I am afraid that this will cause big problems for the Water Department's RO plant. The filtration process will never be able to effectively cope with the heavy sedimentation which is normal in the area.
During the summer the waters are usually very clear there unless there is a storm out to sea. Today Hurricane Igor is now history but large North swells are still making the waters along that coastline very murky. This video shows the pipe going into the water this past weekend when Igor's swells were being felt along the shore.

The swells were pushing around the pipe and rocks were brought in from the Tamarind Hills mine to hold the pipe down. I believe the Environment Division got involved to stop this thankfully.
I am told by the government's water manager that a huge array of studies including many done by scuba professionals has been done and that all environmental costs will be lower at this facility than those associated with pumping water to this side of the island all the way from the Crabbs water facility. That being said, he told me that his first choice would have been the Urlings area if the Fisheries Department hadn't killed that plan. The eye sore and potential environmental problem that the pipe is will be dealt with according to the manager. He says that foreign contractors will bury the pipe and it won't be visible. This is very good news because as you can see it surely doesn't fit on the beach.
It always amazes me how terribly our different government departments do at working together and planning together. I don't think the ministry of tourism is involved with this project in any way. If they are I am very surprised indeed. Of course, this project would have considerably lower costs of all types if a more appropriate place was chosen for it. I understand why Fisheries would have been concerned with a desalination plant at their facility but there can be no doubt that it would have been a better choice considering the year round water clarity there and the history of desalination in another sensitive ecological area in the North Sound. A carefully managed system at Urlings would have been far better. I guess all we can do is wait and see how this thing works out. For more on reverse osmosis desalination check this animated video:


Anonymous said...

How do you square your eco views with the utter destruction caused by desalination plants??

365 said...

First of all you don't give your name, then you don't give any info to back up your suggestion that a desalination plant leads to utter destruction. We have had a massive desalination plant inside of a very sensitive ecological area for over 25 years and I haven't seen this utter destruction (apart from the oil they dumped from their machinery). Of course there are many environmental implications, but can you give me a better solution to give 100 thousand people and a huge tourist population potable water here on the island?

365 said...

While I have strong "eco views" as you put it, I try to be as realistic as possible. The best thing that could happen for the ecology of this island is that we ban tourists from coming here, send out all non native animals and plants try to cut the human population of the island down to about 10 thousand while sterilizing all females. The best thing for the environment here is not to have any trace of human impact. Realistic? No, so we have to manage what we have as best as we possibly can which is exacly the point of my last question in the comment above.

Clay said...

Great read. Keep up the good work Eli.

Dave Toc PhD said...

WHY NOT USE TREATED WATER??? they are clean and cosless!
Yes, I repeat: why not use treated waters for differnet purpouse like garden's irrigation, agriculture needs, etc. There are a lot of ways that can be followed. One of this is treatment wetlands: you can build treatment beds that looks like tropical gardens and the results are clean water that could be reused! take a look at: . SAVE POTABLE WATER for noble use like igienic or hospital or foods preparing... use treated water for all the other needs. You can do it!
HOW to obtain treated waters? is simple. You can start fron a traditional treatment plants and put a treatment wetland as tertiary treatment step then according to the needs you can use a Cl-line for didinfection.
It'n not impossible, I think that there are also funds to do that!

365 said...

Most hotels do.

365 said...

Most hotels do.