California town uses fast-track laws to push through desalination plant

California coastal tourist town Cambria has used the state’s fast-track approval scheme for measures to address its drought emergency to build a desalination plant scheduled to go on stream later this month after only six months in preparation.

The facility will be one of the biggest infrastructure projects undertaken under last year’s emergency rules introduced by California governor Jerry Brown. It will provide about a third of the town’s water demand through a mix of fresh water, estuary water and highly treated sewage wastewater. It makes Cambria one of the first towns in the state to recycle sewage wastewater as a drinking water source.

Cambria’s water officials have battled for a desalination plant since the 1990s and the community has cut residential use rates by 40% which is double the rate Brown asked of all residents in an emergency water-saving plan. Environmental reviews, public hearings and lawsuits related to desalination projects in California typically take years.

San Luis Obispo County and local Cambria officials announced the water-plant project in May 2014, signing a US$13 million loan for the project. Customers will bear part of the cost through rate increases.

Supervising engineer for the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board, Harvey Packard, said “this is exactly what the governor had in mind with the proclamation.” The declaration directed state officials to aid communities in need of water.
The drought has helped to destroy a quarter of the the rare Monterey pines for which Cambria is known.

Authorities have allowed the water district to obtain some permits as construction progressed and others will be allowed after the plant is in operation. A group of Cambria citizens sued the water district in October, saying authorities improperly skipped over environmental safeguards. State Coastal Commission officials warned the water district in July that the plant raised significant policy concerns.