New rules could rein in California coast desalination

Proposed new regulations in California could put a rein on planned desalination plants in the state including the giant, part completed, Carlsbad facility according to a water industry chief in the region.

The State Water Resources Control Board is developing rules to protect marine life from possible harmful effects from desalination facilities along the California coast where more than a dozen are proposed including the three quarters finished Carlsbad.
Director of water resources for the San Diego County Water Authority, Ken Weinberg, said “The outcome of the state water board process will define whether seawater desalination can be a substantive part of California’s water supply, especially in urban areas along the coast.”

He added: “The proposed standards will go far in determining the state’s water future, and the fate of the emerging desalination industry. The importance of these regulations to the entire state can’t be understated.”

Claire Waggoner of the state water board said the regulatory framework will include some latitude. On water intake systems Waggoner said, while state viewed sub surface intake as the least harmful, it would permit an open-sea intake system with additional protections where a sub-surface system was shown to be infeasible due to geologic conditions.

The standards would affect all new or expanded desalination plants in California and could be adopted by the regulatory agency as early as this autumn.

The The $1 billion Carlsbad desalination project, was approved several years ago, but permit renewal and planned upgrades will trigger its compliance with the rules. It will join ten existing but much smaller desalination facilities in the state, some of which operate only intermittently. Proposals call for 15 new plants along the coast.

Senior vice president with Carlsbad builder Poseidon, Peter MacLaggan said Poseidon was “comfortable” with the water board proposals. He said they were “patterned off a process we went through with the regional board.”

He said the company hasn’t yet determined how much the new rules might cost Poseidon.
The water boards said the purpose of the rules was to minimize the loss of sea life when the plants suck in ocean water for treatment. The plants pull in and kill plankton, fish eggs and larvae. The rules would also cover the impacts on sealife of rejected high salinity brine which is returned to the sea.

Carol Reeb of the Hopkins Marine Research Station at Stanford University said rejected brine sinks to the seafloor where it can “cut off oxygen like a layer of plastic wrap. Reeb said even a small increase in salinity could harm marine life She said plants should consider operating “brine free” by collecting the byproduct of desalination and keeping it out of the ocean.