By John Earl
Surf City Voice
How to get more ocean desalination plants built in California despite pesky environmental regulations was the topic of a workshop on Oct. 30 at the 1st Annual Desalination Conference held by CalDesal at the Hyatt hotel in Irvine.
CalDesal is a non-profit lobbying organization started by Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa after years of collaboration with various other southern California public water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Municipal Water District of Orange County.
CalDesal promotes desalination on behalf of its 80 or so member organizations, including public water agencies and private water corporations, as well as the private consultants who piggy back on that tightly knit partnership – the foundation of water management.
The raison d’être for CalDesal is the desal industry’s powerful foes, the environmentalists, who, it is said (but never documented), greatly outspend and out lobby the water industry. Due to that imbalance, environmentalists have gone too far with regulations, obstructing what could be an eternal flow of water from the limitless ocean that is needed to feed our (or the water industry’s) insatiable appetite for growth.
In an “Action Alert” issued last spring, CalDesal warned that “There can be in excess of 30 local, state, and federal permits and related approvals and comments involved in reviewing and issuing permits for seawater desalination projects. That often can lead to an inefficient permitting pathway and redundant requirements” putting at risk “critical water supplies for communities.”
CalDesal intended the alert to rally support for “streamlining” legislation, Assembly bill 2595, which proponents hope would set up a so-called one-stop shop to replace the five or six stages of permitting that exists now.
Streamlining advocates insist that their intent is to increase efficiency, not to “fast track” the projects in order to by-pass environmental regulations. But the bill’s opponents say that by diluting the permitting process the bill would undermine fundamental environmental protections.
“There’s no need to streamline ocean desalination regulations,” says Conner Everts, director of the Southern California Watershed. “Projects that comply with existing laws have moved forward. Those that haven’t have been challenged.”
Water agencies want to be exempt from environmental regulations, Everts says. “But this [ocean desalination] is a new technology with huge impacts that is new to California and the United States and [it] deserves to be properly reviewed.”
The bill died in committee, but the fight to streamline lives on through CalDesal, whose members probably ended up hearing a different truth than expected at the generally upbeat but tightly controlled two-day event.
Titled “Desalination Permitting – the intersection of Science & Policy,” the workshop brought together representatives from the state agencies that handle permitting for desalination projects, including the California Natural Resources Agency, California State Water Board, California Coastal Commission, California State Lands Commission and California Department of Fish and Game, to explain permitting basics to CalDesal’s members.
The overriding message was clear: follow the proper procedures from the start; if your project is worthy, it will be approved in a matter of months. But if you don’t follow the proper procedures, expect delays.
Building a desalination plant is “an extremely daunting process,” explained Catherine Kuhlman of the Natural Resources Agency, which monitors the state’s natural, cultural and historical resources, including marine protection areas. “We also know that desal is a necessary component of our water supply in the future.”
Kuhlman said that there are three key permits to get, from the Lands Commission, Coastal Commission and the State Water Board. Those agencies work together to avoid permitting conflicts, she said, and they are committed to ensuring that desalination is part of the state’s “water portfolio.”
Coordinating early with the permitting agencies is “hugely important,” she said, but “pitting the agencies against each other isn’t going to be an effective strategy. It will result in a delay.”
Tom Luster of the Coastal Commission explained the role of state agencies in upholding the Public Trust Doctrine, which is embedded in centuries of Western law and the California Constitution.
The Public Trust Doctrine protects the public’s right to water resources for the common good rather than strictly for private profit and underlies what each state permitting agency does in its own way, he explained, so desalination projects must conform to its principles.
To help streamline the permitting process for ocean desalination projects, Luster suggested submitting applications to the State Lands Commission early on because that agency serves as the lead for determining compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, which sets the protocol used by state and local agencies for analyzing and disclosing environmental impacts of local projects and it thoroughly analyzes Public Trust Doctrine issues as part of that process.
Adhering to the California Coastal Act, which provides the structure by which the Coastal Commission protects coastal resources, is also paramount, Luster said. “The better the proposed project incorporates all the Costal Act policies and the other state requirements, the more likely it’s going to have a smoother ride through the permit process.”
The main concern, Luster said, is to determine the least environmentally damaging way of creating the water supply after considering all the alternatives, including different approaches to desalination or sources other than desalination.
“Part of the consideration should be, are there water efficiency or conversation measures that can be put into place? Are there additional recycling opportunities that you would put into place before going to the desal? If those options have provided the [water] supply with less environmental damage those would be evaluated as part of our assessment of the project,” Luster said.
Luster listed specific issues that the Coastal Commission will look at during its review of an ocean desalination project, including the pros and cons of co-locating with a power plant for ocean intake, as Poseidon Resources Inc. plans to do with the AES power plant in southeast Huntington Beach in order to suck in 100 million gallons or more of seawater each day and produce 50 million gallons of potable water.
That intake process, referred to as once through cooling (OTC) because seawater is passed through pipes to cool the power plant, decreases capital costs but kills virtually all marine life (larvae) that come through the intake process.
The State Water Board has virtually eliminated the use of OTC for power plants by 2020 but will decide how to apply the new marine protection standards to ocean desalination plants in next two years.
Although Poseidon claims that the amount of ocean marine life that would be killed by the Huntington Beach plant is miniscule, the actual harm done goes beyond any single ocean desalination plant, Luster pointed out.
There are 12 ocean desalination plants envisioned or planned along the coast between Tijuana and Santa Barbara that would draw in marine life from overlapping areas, including some designated to protect marine life, which would have a significant cumulative effect.
“Co-location should not just be considered a default choice of facility,” Luster said, a factor that he also said would be considered in the Commission’s project analysis.
Other desalination permitting issues mentioned by Luster:
- How much water is needed and can it come from multiple sources?
- Will the water go to one defined location where water conservation plays a key role or to an area without an effective conservation program?
- Does the project fit with the Local Coastal Plan and anticipate population growth?
- Is the site located in a protected or sensitive habitat area?
- Does the project use subsurface intake (thus eliminating the problems caused by once-through-cooling)?
- Is it close to the shoreline or away from the shoreline?
- Will it be a publicly or privately owned facility?
- Did developers coordinate early and extensively with public agencies and other stakeholders?
Three months was the shortest time for full permitting of an ocean desalination project, Luster said. That was a relatively small facility in Sand City that produces 330 acre feet of water per year (Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach plant would produce 56,000af). The average length of time so far has been 7 months, according to Luster.
“If you have a well designed and planned facility the permitting process shouldn’t be any problem at all,” Luster said.
Poseidon’s Huntington Beach plant still hasn’t finished its permitting process after 10 years. Environmental Impact Report issues remain for the Coastal Commission, the final permitting stop, to resolve, but for the past five years the company has repeatedly failed to comply with the commission’s requests for information about the project. Also, the project’s opponents have filed an appeal with the commission over a 2010 Local Coastal Plan permit given by the city.
Those issues could be resolved by the commission sometime in 2013. But given unresolved financing and contractual issues, when or if the plant will ever be built is still an open question.