Concerns over intake pipes could disrupt plan for Moss Landing desal plant.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
California American Water Co. officials say the new pilot seawater desalination project at the Moss Landing Power Plant is “a major step forward” in developing a long-term water supply for the Monterey Peninsula. But some environmentalists worry it’s a major step in the wrong direction.>>
Last week, Cal Am announced it had begun building the plant, a test project of sorts for the company’s planned regional desal facility. The environmentalists’ concerns focus on the fact that the desal operation would produce potable water using the power plant’s once-through cooling system.
Once-through cooling draws ocean water through industrial intakes—and kills fish and other marine organisms in the process. For that reason, both the state and the feds appear to be moving towards eliminating once-through cooling at power plants. Some environmentalists say there’s no way that the state will issue Cal Am the necessary permits to build a plant that relies on the embattled technology—let alone produce a long-term water supply for the Monterey Peninsula.
There is another option. An alternative plan for a site near Marina wouldn’t use once-through cooling, but instead would extract water from beach wells through a pipeline beneath the ocean floor. This system essentially uses the sand on the floor of the ocean as a natural filter to keep seaweed, fish and fish larvae from being sucked into the pumping system. For this reason beach wells, or other subsurface intake systems, are generally considered the environmentally superior technology.
A California Coastal Commission report titled “Seawater Desalination in California” reports that beach wells have a “significant advantage” over once-through systems, concluding: “Applicants are encouraged to use beach wells for seawater intake whenever feasible, and where the wells will not cause significant adverse impacts to either beach topography or potable groundwater supplies.”
For several months, Cal Am officials have said they plan to drill test wells in north Marina, in addition to the pilot desal plant in Moss Landing. But when asked when the company would begin drilling these wells, Cal Am President Kent Turner told the Weekly, “There is the potential that we may never” drill those wells.
“First of all,” Turner says, “as I told the Coastal Commission when we got the permits for the pilot plant at Moss Landing, that is the worst-case scenario. If we can treat the water at Moss Landing, we certainly can treat the water from any type of well that we might use at Marina or any other location. The mere fact that we’re doing this pilot plant at Moss Landing doesn’t mean that’s where it’s going to end up.”
Turner adds that the Environmental Impact Review process doesn’t require Cal Am to drill test wells. And while the pilot plan will cost upwards of $3 million, Marina beach wells would run an additional $1.5 million. The final desal project will cost about $200 million.
“The consumer can’t and shouldn’t pay for everything,” Turner says. “We’re looking out for our consumers.”
More than a decade ago, the state Water Resources Control Board ordered Cal Am to reduce the amount of water it pumped from the Carmel River aquifer. At the time, the water company was taking more than 14,000 acre-feet per year from the aquifer—10,000 more than the state allows. The state told Cal Am to find a new source of water for Peninsula customers. At around the same time, another court ordered Cal Am to reduce its pumping from the Seaside basin aquifer.
In response, Cal Am proposed its Coastal Water Project three years ago. Its primary component—and the company’s preferred alternative—is the Moss Landing desalination plant. The project it describes would produce the state-mandated 11,000-plus acre-feet per year—but it would have the capacity to produce almost twice that amount “to meet future regional demands.”
The Coastal Water Project is currently undergoing a public environmental review process, led by the state Public Utilities Commission. If and when the project makes it through the environmental review process, it will require permits—from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Coastal Commission, among others.
The north Marina alternative would have the capacity to produce the same amount of water as the Moss Landing option. And it looks like it would have a better shot at getting the green light from the state.
Today, there are about 20 ocean water desalination plants proposed up and down the California coast. Coastal Commission environmental scientist Tom Luster will likely review all of them. Luster, the lead author on the “Seawater Desalination in California” report, says the state agency considers subsurface water intake methods—such as beach wells—preferable. “Not just for Cal Am, but for all of the desalination proposals,” Luster says. “We’re requiring they determine if a subsurface intake is feasible before they go for an open-water intake.”
Indeed, the days of once-through cooling technology appear limited.
On July 2, the El Segundo Power Plant in Santa Monica submitted a plan convert to a closed-cycle cooling system, eliminating its current use of seawater as a coolant. The power company’s announcement won praise from environmental groups like Surfrider Foundation—and added momentum to the move away from once-through cooling.
Last year, both the State Lands Commission and Ocean Protection Council adopted resolutions dissuading the use of this technology in California.
In January, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Environmental Protection Agency was inadequately enforcing the Clean Water Act in regards to once-through cooling systems. The appeals court concluded that the EPA must require power plants to employ the best technology available to protect aquatic habitats.
The Surfrider Foundation, one of the environmental groups that brought the issue to court, predicted that the ruling will impact desalination plants. “With this ruling, desalination plants should no longer be co-located with power plants,” says Surfrider’s Joe Geever. “It doesn’t make sense to prevent the destruction of marine life by the power industry just to have desalination step in and continue the destruction.”
The Planning and Conservation League, a statewide group that lobbies Sacramento lawmakers to enact environmental laws, also opposes once-through cooling. PCL’s Water Policy Advisor Jonas Minton has been following Cal Am’s desal efforts closely, and he says the writing is on the wall.
“PCL is against once-through cooling,” Minton says. “We also note that the State Lands Commission opposed leases for projects that would be dependant on projects that involve once-through cooling, the Ocean Protections Commission has expressed its concerns, and the Coastal Commission, which would be required to permit the project, has expressed its concerns.
“It is our judgment, based on the federal court decision, and the position of state regulatory agencies, that it will be impossible to permit and build a desalination plant dependant on once-through cooling at Moss Landing.
“That is why it was fortunate that Cal Am’s analysis includes alternative intake methods including beach wells. It is also my understanding that Cal Am is beginning to read the tea leaves the same way as others and is coming to the realization that relying on once-through cooling intake will not be a reliable option.”
Turner declined to respond to Minton’s comments.
“I know that once-through cooling is not the preferred method,” Turner says. “But it is impossible for me to speculate whether once-through cooling would ever be permitted. The problem is, until you look at one of the alternatives, you don’t know who is going to be for or against the alternative. We’re getting reactions now on once-through cooling because we’re looking at a project that uses once-through cooling. My crystal ball isn’t working well enough to speculate what will happen in the future.”