Financing and legal hurdles still ahead for Carlsbad desalination

The labyrinthine complexities of the desalination permitting process in California were further illustrated this week with the latest twists in the Carlsbad seawater desalination plant saga.

At a public hearing on 8 April 2009, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board concluded that the new coastal wetlands proposed by Poseidon as a part of the project will be adequate to mitigate both impingement and entrainment impacts of the desalination plant, when and if it operates as a stand-alone facility in the future.

This, as Nikolay Voutchkov from project promoters Poseidon Resources points out, is unlikely, as the plant will use cooling water from the collocated Encina power station. Since the power station is anticipated to be operational at least for the near future, the actual impingement impact of the plant is expected to be significantly smaller than the assessment presented at the board, which assumes that all of the intake impingement is associated with the desalination plant operations.

The approval was given despite a difference of opinion between Poseidon and the board's staff about precisely how many marine organisms would be affected.

Says Voutchkov, "Since currently neither the US Environmental Protection Agency nor any other regulatory agency worldwide has a methodology of how to assess impingement of marine organisms on intake screens and how to project the amount of such impingement for new projects, Poseidon's experts and the San Diego board's staff had a difference of opinion of what methodology should be used to complete this assessment."

For the site-specific conditions of the Carlsbad project, various impingement assessment methodologies can yield between 1 kg/d and 7 kg/d of the total amount of fish that could be impinged on the intake screens as result of the plant operations. Voutchkov maintains that this could be the daily intake of a couple of pelicans.

"It is logical to conclude that this will not tip the ecological balance along the California coast," he maintains.

On the same day, the San Diego Superior Court issued a tentative ruling rejecting arguments by Surfrider Foundation and the Planning & Conservation League that the California Coastal Commission misapplied state law when it gave Poseidon Resources a coastal development permit to build the plant.

Judge Judith Hayes said the commission's decision was reasonable based on the evidence presented at its November 2007 hearing.

Further legal challenges lie ahead for Poseidon, but permitting is now complete. However, financing is not. Voutchkov estimates all hurdles will be cleared by the last quarter of 2009.

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