Way down at the bottom of New Jersey, in little old Cape May, a $5 million plant - the first of its kind in the Northeast and still one of only two in the state - is turning brackish well water into potable water at a rate of 650 gallons a minute.

The desalination plant, which went online in September 1998 and is 14 years old, remains a remarkable technological - and political - achievement. Especially for a small town like Cape May. Especially when you consider that the expensive, risky plant would be unlikely to win approval today, when any elected official who dares to think big and take such a gamble leaves himself or herself exposed to blistering attacks from opponents.

Building the Cape May desalination plant required lots of cooperation. The process was long and not without it problems. But the plant was and is an example of government successfully solving a problem.

How about that?

Cape May was running out of drinking water in the early 1990s, thanks to a process that had begun decades earlier. As the city pumped fresh water out of underground aquifers near the sea, saltwater crept into the wells. Mayor Ed Mahaney says that at one point, doctors were advising patients not to drink the city's water because it was so high in salt.

Clearly, something had to be done, particularly if the region was going to accommodate a growing tourism industry. Much hand-wringing began. There were years of study. And City Council ultimately decided on a desalination plant.

Turning seawater into drinking water was prohibitively expensive. But using slightly salty - or brackish - water from several wells and running that through the desalination process proved doable. Convincing Cape May Point and West Cape May to agree to buy water from the new plant was key to making the plan work financially. And the federal government came through with a grant of $1.25 million and $3.5 million in low-interest loans.

Cape May "showed that desalination can work under the proper conditions and in certain circumstances," Fred Sickels, the head of the state Division of Water Supply and Geoscience, told Press staff writer Richard Degener for a recent story on the plant.

And so, as you read this, a plant in Cape May is pushing millions of gallons of brackish water through membranes that capture the salt and produce drinking water that is 99.83 percent pure.

You don't hear about a lot of government success stories. But this is one.


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