Opposition calls their claims grossly inaccurate
Supporters of ocean desalination in California commonly lament the numerous permits required in this state to build a plant capable of converting seawater into drinkable tap water.
In late April, backers of a bill to create a state task force with the goal of streamlining the process claimed desalination plants require up to 30 permits in California to gain approval.
“With 30 permitting steps, these are overlapping and confusing requirements,” Rep. Isadore Hall (D-Los Angeles), chief sponsor of Assembly Bill 2595, told state representatives in the Committee on Natural Resources in Sacramento.
However, Sara Kristie, legislative director for the California Coastal Commission, one of the agencies needed for approval, told lawmakers that claim was a gross exaggeration.
“The reality is you need between four and six permits, most at the state level, in order to get a desal facility approved,” Kristie said.
Those permits are processed concurrently with multiple agencies so that a test facility could be approved in as little as four months and a full-scale plant in less than a year, that is, if an applicant fully complies, Kristie said.
A growing number of water officials and politicians view ocean desalination as part of the solution to California’s water troubles. They see it as a way to secure up to 10 percent of Southern California’s supply. The area now imports about two-thirds of its water from sources sensitive to drought in northern California and the Colorado River, forcing water shortages in central California as well.
Conservation groups opposed to desalination view it as overly costly and requiring too much energy where other options such as water recycling and increased conservation are more viable. In addition, they say, Californians need to learn to live better with the ongoing cycles of drought and rain.
In support of the bill in Sacramento recently were lobbyists for the West Basin Municipal Water District, which runs the largest pilot facility of its kind and has plans to build a full-scale plant in the near future.
Also in attendance at the public hearing were lobbyists for CalDesal, the non-profit organization representing public water utilities for the purpose of lobbying in Sacramento, the California Water Association, which represents largely investor-owned utilities, in addition to representatives for the San Diego County Water Authority and City of Santa Cruz.
The California Coastal Commission has approved eight ocean desalination facilities in recent years from San Diego to Marin counties, mostly pilot projects but some sizable plants as well. Top concerns at the commission are the method of water in-take and the brine, the water concentrated salts and other minerals left over after reverse osmosis. Brine has the potential to significantly increase the salinity in a given area.
“The average review time is seven months,” Kristie told lawmakers. “If you follow the Coastal Commission guidance and ask what the process is and how best to utilize the time, these permits can be done concurrently in a coordinated fashion.”
There was one elephant in the room, however, the private equity firm, Poseidon Resources, which plans to build two of the largest desalination plants in California. Poseidon has spent years earning the approval of state regulators. But the delay was largely the company’s own doing.
After several years going back and forth with the Coastal Commission staff for its application for a $750 million project in Carlsbad near San Diego, the permit was eventually submitted to commissioners with a recommendation not to approve it, said Tom Luster, commission analyst.
After some heavy lobbying, commissioners approved the project with an agreement to return with a mitigation plan for any environmental problems the plant might make.
Poseidon complied with plans to restore 66 acres of nearby wetlands. The facility is expected to consume 100 million gallons of seawater through a subsurface in-take pipe with the potential to entrap marine life. The project now remains in limbo because Poseidon has not secured the needed purchase agreements from area water districts.
Currently, the Coastal Commission has before it a permit for another Poseidon project in Huntington Beach, about the same size and design as the Carlsbad plant. Again with Poseidon, Luster said the company is not fully complying with what the Coastal Commission has asked.
“We’ve sent a number of letters back and forth. And we’re still waiting for some of the information,” Luster said.
Poseidon’s latest response in February to the commission’s May 2011 inquiry was still insufficient, Luster said. Some of the information the commission requested includes basic information on the velocity of the in-take water, more information on the effects on marine life, information about wetlands on the adjacent power plant site and the results of a geological hazard study the company was required to perform by the city of Huntington Beach.
“There are some things they’ve made it clear they are not going to provide to us so we are going to go ahead and get information from other sources,” Luster said. “There may be other analysis we just won’t reach agreement on.”
A spokesperson for Poseidon did not respond to requests for comment.
In much of Southern California, even with population growth, demand is about at 1990 levels, around 180 gallons per person per day, which is still well above levels in other countries such as Australia and Israel before they turned to seawater desalination.
“Why are we looking at doing these high tech solutions first when we haven’t done the appropriate technology that has immediate environmental benefits,” said Conner Everts, who heads the non-profit Desal Response Group, which shares an office with Heal the Bay in Santa Monica.
Everts would prefer to see more water recycling and reclamation of the millions of gallons of surface water that flows into the ocean each year before turning to desalination.
The Poseidon project in Huntington plans to use the same in-take pipes as a nearby power plant, which have already proven harmful to sea life. Commissioners likely will not vote on approving the Poseidon project until the company begins building its plant in Carlsbad, said Kevin Hunt, MWDOC managing director.
Hunt said the board’s 20 member agencies have been meeting with Poseidon for more than three years. Earlier this month, the board scheduled a closed session meeting to discuss a possible purchase agreement with Poseidon. When opponents of the project found out about it, Hunt withdrew the agenda item.
“It was just a mistake on my part,” Hunt said. “There was no need for it right now, so I cancelled it.”
Former Huntington Beach city councilwoman Debbie Cook, who is opposed to desalination and regularly investigates the water district, said the district should not be allowed to hold such meetings in closed session.
An attorney for the district claims the justification for closed session falls under a “real estate” exemption to the state’s open meetings law called the Brown Act. Cook said the same justification for closed session meetings has been coming up at water districts throughout Southern California as a way to discuss water deals without public scrutiny.
“They’ve twisted it to say water rights are property rights,” Cook said. “But, in fact, they are not acquiring any real estate, and they are not taking up water rights. They are buying a commodity. It’s no different than if they were buying lumber and saying it was connected to the land.”
Hunt said the closed session meetings are necessary.
“At some time we are going to meet to negotiate the purchase of Poseidon water under closed session,” Hunt said. “We’ll be talking about negotiations in terms of price. We don’t want to tip our hand to Poseidon.”
A large portion of the price of desalination will come in the form of taxpayer subsidies. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has agreements in place worth up to $11.5 million to produce 46,000 acre-feet of desalinated water per year. In addition, Poseidon and other ventures are expected to largely use tax-exempt bonds to fund construction costs.
“Why are we giving that away in these times?” Everts asked.
Interest in desalination has ebbed and flowed in California since about the first major drought in the 1960s. The effort to build ocean desalination plants usually fades away with the end of a major cycle. But over the past 10 years, desalination supporters have been more tenacious.
In Southern California, water consumption and available resources given population growth are simply not sustainable without a more concerted effort toward conservation and recycling.
So it is Southern California that is the problem, yet it is the entire state – especially the more rural parts – where there are some of the staunchest supporters of ocean desalination like Rep. Chebro Wesley (D-Arcata), who chairs the Committee for Natural Resources at the state assembly. Wesley said he has an interest in protecting the rivers of northern California.
“From my standpoint, every drop of water that comes out of the ocean to feed the thirst of southern California is a drop of water that isn’t coming out of a river in northern California,” Wesley said. “So I have to be in favor of desalination, and anyone who’s trying to figure out a pathway. That being said, it has environmental impacts and it has to be done right.”
Regardless of the method, pumping water to Southern California is energy intensive. It takes about 3,100 kilowatt hours of electricity to pump an acre-foot of water from the Delta compared to around 3,400 kilowatt hours to produce the same amount of water through an average reverse osmosis desalination plant.
One area that hopes to benefit from more water is central California where Rep. Linda Halderman (R-Fresno) said she represents families struggling to have a source of clean, reliable drinking water.
“We simply don’t have that throughout our area,” Halderman said. “Whatever can be done to take the pressure off of central and northern California to help solve the problems of delivery in Southern California I am in favor.”