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Desalination Has Pitfalls, Study Finds

Plants that make seawater drinkable, including one proposed in Huntington Beach, could ruin marine life, coastal agency contends.

August 08, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Using the ocean to help meet California's drinking water needs could lead to destruction of marine life and turn a public resource into a private commodity, according to a California Coastal Commission report released Thursday.

Desalination also could remove a major obstacle to development, putting more of a burden on local infrastructure and sensitive habitats, the commission report said.

The report, unveiled at a commission meeting in Huntington Beach, the site of a proposed desalination plant, is a first attempt by the state agency to clarify some of the major concerns about using the ocean as a source of drinking water.

After a 60-day public comment period, the commission will prepare a final report.

Environmental groups that oppose the proposed Huntington Beach plant, including the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation, applauded the preliminary findings.

"We believe desalination should only be used as a last resort and then under the absolute control of the people who depend on it for survival ... so it serves the common good, not stockholders and CEOs," said Huntington Beach resident John Earl, representing Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader-founded public interest group.

The Huntington Beach plant, proposed by Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources, is one of about 20 desalination projects proposed along the California coastline. At least six are proposed by private companies or public-private partnerships. The Poseidon plant would produce drinking water for nearly 500,000 Orange County residents.

The $240-million plant would be built next to the AES power plant on Pacific Coast Highway and would use that facility's intake and outtake pipelines to collect seawater and dispose of the leftover salty brine.

Critics contend that the Huntington Beach project would put ocean water, considered a public trust held in common for public use and enjoyment, in the hands of a private company. They also point to problems at other plants, including one in Tampa, Fla., that has been shut down for several weeks because of problems with its filters.

"I think it's one of the worst ideas, putting a public resource like water in private hands where the ultimate regulator is Wall Street," said Coastal Commission member Patrick Kruer.

Interest in desalination, the removal of salt from seawater, as a source for drinking water has grown considerably in recent years as cities and water agencies look for ways to reduce their dependence on imported water and as technological advances have reduced costs and energy usage. In California, the need is particularly acute as the state is forced to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River.

Besides the proposed facility in Huntington Beach, desalination plants are being considered in Dana Point, Playa del Rey, Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Carlsbad and Chula Vista.

The Coastal Commission on Thursday approved an experimental project in Long Beach that uses technology expected to reduce the energy costs of desalination by 20%, said Kevin Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department.

The Long Beach project, expected to be operational in August 2004, will take in 850,000 gallons of seawater a day.

Both the drinking water and brine would be measured for quality and then pumped back to the ocean.

The desalination plant will be at the Haynes power generating plant and would operate only when the power plant's water cooling system is running.

The plant was approved with relatively little comment from the public and commissioners. The Huntington Beach proposal met with stiff resistance, however, as the environmental and privatization issues were raised repeatedly.

The Coastal Commission report warns that the powerful intake valves the plants use pose significant harm to fish and small organisms such as plankton, larvae and fish eggs.

The harmful effects can be minimized with proper facility design, siting and operations, the report said.

A larger concern raised at the meeting was whether the delivery of drinking water should be put into private hands.

One commissioner, however, said that in Monterey County a private proposal for a desalination plant might help bring the Carmel River back to life.

Toni Iseman, a coastal commissioner and Laguna Beach mayor, said she is wary of projects that promise "You give us the desalination plant and we'll give you back your lakes and rivers. I don't think that's going to happen."

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