State budget cuts delay Carlsbad desalination approval

Cuts to the California state budget prevented officials of the San Diego County Regional Water Quality Control Board preparing recommendations regarding the proposed Carlsbad desalination plant for the board to vote on at a meeting on 11 February 2009.

The board, which is the agency regulating the intake of source water and discharge of concentrate from the desalination plant, therefore directed staff to have a recommendation ready for a decision by 8 April.

The 2006 desalination plant discharge permit requires project developer Poseidon Resources to develop an intake impingement and entrainment minimization plan. This must include preparation of a wetland mitigation plan aimed at addressing the potential impacts of the desalination plant intake when and if its collocated powerplant discontinues its present once-through cooling operation.

The wetland mitigation plan requires Poseidon to identify potential locations for construction of up to 55.4 acres (22.4 ha) of man-made coastal wetlands, which would be designed to create a marine environment similar to that which would be impacted by the desalination plant intake operation.

Two other agencies, the California State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission, have already requested Poseidon to develop the same wetland mitigation plan for their approval, which was acquired towards the end of 2008.

“Carlsbad is a poster-child example for the bureaucracy of the state of California,” says Poseidon’s chief technology officer, Nikolay Voutchkov, “which has been hampering the implementation of seawater desalination in the state and costing state taxpayers millions of dollars at no clear benefit to the environment or tax- and rate-payers. The project is required to develop mitigation measures for an event, which, if it happens, is likely to occur not earlier than 10 years from now.

“Then the same exact wetland mitigation plan is reviewed in sequence by three California state agencies for exactly the same issues. Since the mandate of these agencies is very broad, they are continuously stepping on each other’s toes and overlapping their responsibilities, which makes the project permitting process extremely long, convoluted and expensive,” Voutchkov complains.

California is the only state in the world, he believes, where the time it takes to get all permits and licenses needed for construction of a desalination plant (5-8 years) is longer than the time it takes to design and construct the plant (2.5-3 years). Most projects worldwide take 6-18 months to permit.

The Carlsbad project is on track to begin construction in the summer to early fall of 2009 and to be operational by early 2012. The approval process of the wetland mitigation plan does not impact the project implementation schedule or project discharge permit, which is in full force and allows the desalination project construction to begin at that time.

See also Carlsbad project plan for green SWRO