California Board Proposes Ways to Protect Ocean Life, Water Quality During Desalinization

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By Lars-Eric Hedberg  

July 7 — The California State Water Resources Control Board has released proposed amendments to the state's ocean plan that addresses desalination facility intakes and brine discharges.

Generally, desalination plants remove salts from saltwater and brackish water to produce freshwater for municipal uses.

The main environmental impacts associated with desalination facilities are marine life entrainment—or the death of small organisms present in the surface or subsurface seawater piped into a plant—and the discharge of brine as a waste-product back into the ocean after the process.

As such, the primary purpose of the July 3 desalination amendment is “to protect ocean water quality and marine life from those impacts associated with seawater desalination facility intakes and discharges.”

The amendment is also meant to remove regulatory and permitting inconsistencies and uncertainties, according to the board.

Currently, the board and regional water quality boards regulate brine discharges from desalination facilities by issuing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits that contain certain conditions.

The state's ocean plan, however, does not contain objective standards for elevated salinity levels and does not describe how brine discharges are to be regulated and controlled.

According to the board, the proposals would enhance the state's ocean plan by:

  •  clarifying the board's authority over desalination facility intakes and discharges;
  •  providing direction to the regional water boards regarding the determination required by California Water Code section 13142.5(b), which directs plants using seawater intakes to minimize marine life intake and mortality;
  •  including implementation provisions for a statewide narrative receiving water limitation for salinity and an option for dischargers to apply for a facility-specific receiving water limitation; and
  •  including monitoring and reporting requirements.

    Desalination Litigation in California

    Litigation concerning environmental review and permitting of desalination plants has occurred in both northern and southern California.

    In September 2013, the California Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court ruling that Marin Municipal Water District adequately considered potential adverse impacts of a proposed desalination plant under the California Environmental Quality Act (N. Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Mun. Water Dist. Bd. of Dirs., Cal., No. S211742, 9/11/13).

    The plant, which would take seawater from San Rafael Bay, would initially have a capacity of 5 million gallons per day. The water district would eventually be able to triple the plant's capacity.

    In November 2012, the California Court of Appeal affirmed a superior court ruling that the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Diego Region, complied with the requirements of the California Water Code when it granted a NPDES permit to Poseidon Resources (now Poseidon Water) (Surfrider Found. v. California Reg'l Water Quality Control Bd., 149 Cal.Rptr. 3d 763 (Cal Ct. App. 2012)).

    Poseidon plans to build the facility in Carlsbad, which is located north of San Diego. It would produce up to 50 million gallons per day.

    Poseidon did, however, withdraw in November 2013 its California Coastal Commission permit for a proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant after the commission expressed concerns related to coastal protection issues under the California Coastal Act and Huntington Beach's Local Coastal Program.

    Public Comment, Hearing on Proposed Amendments

    According to the notice of opportunity for public comment, a public workshop to provide information and answer questions on the proposed amendments will be held Aug. 6 at the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters.

    Written and oral comments must be received by the board by noon on Aug. 19. A hearing to receive public input and comments will also be held at the headquarters that day.

    Questions about the notice should be directed to Claire Waggoner at (916) 341-5582 or or Maria de la Paz Carpio-Obeso at (916) 341-5858 or

    To contact the reporter on this story: Lars-Eric Hedberg in Washington at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at

    The proposed desalination amendment of the California State Water Resources Control Board in the State Ocean Plan is available at

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