CAPE MAY, N.J. - The first step to bring 21st-century technology to this Victorian-era beach resort, turning saltwater into drinking water, began in March as officials announced the award of a $485,000 engineering contract to a Somerville firm.
The planned $5 million desalination plant will be the first of its kind in the Northeastern United States. Similar facilities have been built in other parts of the nation, such as Florida, where salt-water intrusion into aquifers has been occurring for decades.
Cape May Mayor Thomas Phelan said Metcalf & Eddy Inc., an environmental engineering and consulting firm that has built such plants in other states, will begin design work and the permit process. The plant will be located in the city's water works building on Washington Street and will pump up to 2 million gallons of drinking water per day, a supply expected to meet the needs of the area until about 2020.
Obtaining the eight permits necessary from the state Department of Environmental Protection - including one providing for the discharge of salt accumulated in the desalination process - may be a bit tricky, officials said.
"There really is no road map to follow in getting the permits, because there has been nothing like this built in the state before," Phelan said. "Cape May is on the front line of saltwater intrusion because the line is moving up from the south."
The salt line, which begins just north of Cape May Point and curls north through West Cape May and across Cape May City to the Cape May Canal, is advancing on the city's sole salt-free well at an alarming rate, experts say. The salt line started moving north along the peninsula where Cape May is located in the 1890s, just about the time people began heavily populating the area and draining the Cohansey Aquifer, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The water works now supplies 6,000 year-round residents and 600,000 summer residents in Cape May and those in neighboring Cape May Point, West Cape May Borough and the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center with about one million gallons of water each day.
Experts estimate that without the new plant, which is expected to come on line by the summer of 1998, Cape May will run out of fresh drinking water from its traditional sources between 1998 and 2000.
"We have to assume that timetable is sooner rather than later, and that means we have to act fast," Phelan said. "That's why we are so pleased to be moving ahead with the design phase and permitting process. There is no time to waste."
While Phelan said obtaining the necessary permits from the DEP may present a "challenge," the innovation of the project could work to the city's advantage in obtaining state and federal grants.
"Every dollar we get in grants is going to reduce the impact this plant will have on the ratepayers," Phelan said. "But I'm optimistic about getting some state or federal money because I think this is an attractive project because it is the first of its kind that deals with an issue that eventually may effect other areas of the state as the salt line advances."
Pub Date: 4/14/97