Desalination plant clears final California hurdle

LOS ANGELES Thu May 14, 2009 7:27pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The biggest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, north of San Diego, can begin construction by year's end after a six-year effort to win regulators' approval, the developer said on Thursday.

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve permit revisions for the $300 million facility, which will produce 50 million gallons of drinking water daily, enough for 110,000 households.

That volume represents about 10 percent of the drinking water needs of San Diego County, home to roughly 3 million people in a region facing freshwater shortages due in part to a prolonged drought.

"Yesterday brought to a close the six-year regulatory process" for the plant, said Scott Maloni, a vice president for the privately held project developer, Poseidon Resources, based in Connecticut.

"We're on schedule to break ground on construction by the end of the year," said Maloni.

He said the company expects the plant to be operational by the first quarter of 2012. The project is to be built beside a power station on a coastal lagoon in the city of Carlsbad, just north of San Diego and about 90 miles south of Los Angeles.

The Carlsbad project ranks as the hemisphere's biggest, and the first of a new wave of such plants expected in California, where about 20 are in various stages of development. A Poseidon plant of similar size is about a year behind the Carlsbad plant to the north in Huntington Beach, Maloni said.

ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS PRESS CHALLENGE

Environmental activists who have fought the project vowed to appeal this week's decision to state water authorities.

Advocates of desalination tout its potential for limiting strain on scarce water supplies, and easing the environmental consequences of diverting freshwater from rivers and streams and pumping it long distances to urban centers.

But critics cite major environmental drawbacks -- namely the harm to marine life from intake pipes that suck water into desalination plants and from the highly concentrated brine byproduct that gets discharged back into the ocean.

Under the permit approved this week, Poseidon is required to create 55.4 acres of wetlands in Southern California as a breeding ground for fish and other organisms to offset the marine life killed by the plant's operations. The plant also must keep its brine discharge below toxic levels.

Opponents have challenged Poseidon in three lawsuits. And another agency that already granted approval, the state Coastal Commission, has said it may take a second look in light of information turned up in the water board's latest review.

Maloni said there was nothing further precluding Poseidon from proceeding to build the plant, and he expected the lawsuits to be resolved by then.

But Marco Gonzalez, a lawyer for opponents, said they would seek court orders to block construction while litigation or their appeal to the state water board was still pending.

"We will use every legal avenue to ensure that the law is followed here," he said.

Desalination is common in parts of the Middle East, but large-scale plants are rare in the Western Hemisphere.

(Editing by Bernie Woodall and Jackie Frank)

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