Cambria desalination study fails consistency test

The California Coastal Commission has called into question the future of the Cambria desalination project near San Luis Opispo by ruling that a US Army Corps of Engineers project to test soil and water near the proposed intake/outfall site is inconsistent with its habitat and coastline rules.

If the federal government engineers were to ignore the state commission’s ruling, a lawsuit would inevitably result, making such a move unlikely.

The proposed geotechnical and hydrogeologic study was to assess whether the site might be suitable for a subsurface intake well and/or outfall for a future proposed desalination facility to be designed and constructed further inland by the Corps for the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD).

The site was selected based on the likely presence of submerged “paleochannels”, which are buried former stream channels that often contain gravel and sand deposits suitable for siting intake wells. When properly sited and designed, these wells can abstract seawater from below the ocean floor without disturbing marine life.

Because state and federal jurisdictions overlapped, the Corps was asking for a “consistency determination”, which would have ensured that it complied with state law to the maximum extent. The commission’s officials on 17 November 2011 had recommended acceptance only with the addition of seven new conditions, then the commission on 9 December 2011 unanimously rejected the consistency determination.

Even if the study had gone ahead, the Coastal Commission says that the study data would not have been adequate to determine the site’s feasibility for this future potential use. Because several site constraints limit the ability of the Corps or CCSD to collect the necessary data, it was not likely the proposed activities would be sufficient to support a determination that the site was a suitable location for these structures.