Construction work at Carlsbad desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Photo courtesy Carlsbad Desalination Project
Construction work at Carlsbad desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Photo courtesy Carlsbad Desalination Project

San Diego Coastkeeper, which fought the Carlsbad desalination plant in court, said Thursday it is disappointed in a new state policy that encourages building similar plants to solve California’s water shortage.

The state Water Resources Control board voted Wednesday to create a statewide, uniform and consistent process for developing desalination plants in California. Board Chair Felicia Marcus said the change will “provide a consistent framework for communities and industry as they consider desalination, while protecting the coastal marine environment.”

Coastkeeper contends the policy standardizes use of technology that will kill marine organisms, cost ratepayers and municipalities more money than alternative water sources, produce more pollution, and impact marine ecosystems more severely than is necessary. It criticized what it called a “misconception that desalination plants are the solution to drought concerns.”

Until Wednesday’s state decision, regional water agencies approved the few desalination plants in the state on a case-by-case basis.

“By failing to clearly state that environmentally superior technologies, designs and site locations are the absolute preference of this policy, the amendment unfortunately sets up the case where each future desalination project proposal will require the strictest scrutiny by the environmental community and will likely result in significant disputes over their compliance with the law,” said Matt O’Malley, who holds the position of waterkeeper for the organization, whose mission is to protect and restores fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters.

The Carlsbad plant will supply 7 percent of San Diego County’s water needs when it opens later this year. A plant is also under consideration for Camp Pendleton. Use of desalination is growing in arid regions worldwide, with Israel now getting 40 percent of its water from desalination plants.

The developer of the Carlsbad plant welcomed the the new policy. “We thank the State Water Resources Control Board and its staff for their thoughtful work on the seawater desalination policy,” said Scott Maloni, vice president of Poseidon Water. “California’s coastal communities can now look with greater certainty to the west for a reliable, environmentally-friendly, drought-proof source of drinking water.”

Coastkeeper said conservation and water reuse are the most appropriate water supply options, each of which it argues has a great potential to contribute to water supply before desalination is needed.

“We must continue above all else to prioritize aggressive conservation — which can have immediate positive outcomes on our water supply outlook — and potable water reuse,” said O’Malley.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.