Taking water for granted

The story of how we get fresh water in the Cayman Islands is as fascinating and interesting as any other about the rise of an obscure fishing village into a booming financial centre and tourism mecca.

World Water Day on Tuesday focuses international attention on the impact of different factors on water supplies around the world.

“People can tend to take water for granted and just expect it to come out of pipes and faucets, and it does. So a day like World Water Day is important as it is good to keep in mind the importance of fresh water,” said Gregory Mctaggart, Consolidated Water vice president of Cayman Operations.

The day illustrates how some places on Earth lack clean water supplies while others lack water all together.

Cayman found itself in that position until the 1960s. Several, fresh water lenses were identified as large enough to be developed as a public water supply.

But by as early as 1975, it was reported that the fresh water lenses in West Bay and George Town had been compromised by overuse and sewage pollution. Not long after, they were deemed no longer viable for public use.

It was not easy to find other sources of fresh water to sustain the growing population.

Before the advent of desalination, people collected rain water for drinking and other uses and also dug wells.

What Cayman needed was a cost effective way of creating and providing fresh water.

Desalination and its benefits still seemed like pie in the sky as no one could make the method cost effective because the technology did not exist.

Many nations and leaders had pondered the topic with one of the most famous quotes regarding the issue coming from John F. Kennedy, who commented, “If we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from salt water, it would be in the long-range interests of humanity and this would dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.”

What the president did not know was that his dream would be realised on the shores of the Cayman Islands, with the advent of the Cayman Water Company and a new method of desalination that was instrumental in creating a system that uses reverse osmosis to create fresh water from saltwater.

The technology is known in the industry as DWEER, Dual Work Exchange Energy Recovery.

In the Beginning

Consolidated’s first desalination equipment was near Governor’s Harbour on Seven Mile Beach. Mechanical vapour compression distillation units were installed on the site in 1979.

Seawater for those units came from an open sea intake site off SMB and some of the first tourist properties along the beach received water.

In 1990, Consolidated commissioned its first seawater reverse osmosis plant and the old vapour compression units were taken out of service.

And an industry was born.

By creating a desalination system that worked under unique circumstances in the Cayman Islands, Consolidated has now branched out and is providing complete design-build sea water reverse osmosis desalination systems to other countries.

It’s systems can be found in the Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Bermida, Belize and here.

One of Consolidated’s clients is the Water Authority.

The Cayman Water Company and Ocean Conversion, which are owned by Consolidated Water, are responsible for providing water to the West Bay Road and the District of West Bay, while the Water Authority serves George Town, Bodden, East End, North Side and Cayman Brac.

How it Works

At the Cayman Water Company, sea water is sucked up from under the ground through pumps as opposed to straight from the ocean.

This is done because the earth acts as a natural filter and takes sediment and living organisms out of the water.

After, the water is sent to pre-filters, which are the first level of filtration, it is sent to high pressure pumps, which pump it at about 900 pounds per square inch into osmosis membranes.

The operation in the Cayman Islands also has some of the lowest ratios of wasted water in the world, with every 100 gallons of seawater converted to 40 gallons of drinking water.

The Cayman Islands produces 1 million gallons of fresh water per day between all the plants on Island.

“Energy recovery, where the brine or waste from the conversion process is recycled to make energy was a huge breakthrough in the industry,” McTaggart said. “The work exchanger technology used in the process was also pioneered here.”

Forced air stripping is used in the process to relieve the water of any gases such as hydrogen sulfide. The water is then stored and chlorine and ph stabilizer is added.

McTaggart said when people complain about the price of water in Cayman, they usually do not realise that the jurisdiction is different from many other countries in how it has to source its water and it is an unfair comparison.

Working Together

The Water Authority of the Cayman Islands does all testing of water in the Cayman Islands, including the water that comes from other plants on the Island. It was established in 1983 as a statutory body and is administered by a board of directors.

In the early years, the huge demand for piped water outside of West Bay was underestimated and by the time the first small section of George Town was supplied with water, the demand was such that the Authority, with the support of successive governments, had to continue extending the system.

In 1986, work began on an infrastructure project that included the West Bay Beach Sewerage Project and the George Town Water Supply Project; they were both completed by 1988.

By 1994, the piped water supply project had undergone several extensions and was completed up to Midland Acres in Bodden Town.

Today the Cayman Islands enjoys almost unlimited piped water, a far cry from the days when gathering rain water was the norm.