Grain of salt

Lindsay Slough

“There is little likelihood that even with favorable court rulings up the legal chain that the desalination plant would be built any time in the near future.”

California water disputes inevitably wind up in the courts, no surprise there, and the latest example is the fight in Marin County over the proposed $115 million desalination plant, a plan viewed by local water officials as an obvious and necessary safeguard against drought but denounced by critics as an energy-depleting, environment-damaging boondoggle.

The first step in what all but certain is likely to be protracted legal drama came when Marin County Superior Court Judge M. Lynn Duryee ruled that the proposed plant’s environmental impact report failed to adequately identify the project’s potential impact on marine life and that it violated the requirements of the state’s principal environmental safeguard, the 41-year-old California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA itself doesn’t determine specifics of projects, but it requires them to undergo intensive review to assure they meet environmental safeguards.

The decision by Duryee, who agreed with the challenge filed by the North Coast Rivers Alliance, prompted the Marin Municipal Water District last week to appeal the decision. The district, which has examined desalination alternatives for some two decades, had hopes to build a plant in district-owned property on San Francisco Bay, treating the bay water through a multi-step process that includes reverse osmosis. The MWD – its institutional memory perhaps scarred by the horrific 1976-77 drought when water had to be brought in through a pipeline attached to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge — is familiar with desalination. It operated an 11-month desalination project in 2005, in part to show that the process was feasible, in part to identify and head off potential problems in a future, full-scale project.

The district’s appeal last week of Duryee’s ruling keeps the project alive, at least on paper, but there is little likelihood that even with favorable court rulings up the legal chain that the desalination plant would be built any time in the near future.

The district itself put the project in limbo last year, and with good reason. The economic landscape has changed dramatically since the financial go-go times of 2005. Money is tight, investors skittish and the economy uncertain. Last season’s wet weather, ironically, hasn’t helped desalination-proponents, since the concept takes hold strongest in times of drought. Too, water district customers use less water during the rains, which means the district – Marin is not alone here – collect less revenue, even as their fixed costs remain the same.

It’s a triple whammy.

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