California approves first statewide seawater desalination rules

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(Reuters) - California regulators on Wednesday adopted the first statewide rules for the permitting of seawater desalination projects that are expected to proliferate as drought-stricken communities increasingly turn to the ocean to supplement their drinking supplies.

The action, which sets uniform standards for minimizing harm to marine life, was welcomed by developers of the state's two largest desalination projects as bringing much-needed certainty and clarity to the regulatory approval process.

"It reaffirms that the Pacific Ocean is part of the drinking water resources for the state of California," Poseidon Water executive Scott Maloni told Reuters after the rule was enacted on a voice vote in Sacramento by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The measure leaves the permitting process in the hands of the state's regional water boards while establishing a single framework for them to follow in evaluating applications to build seawater treatment plants, expand existing ones and renew old permits.

But regional decisions could now be appealed to the state board for review if opponents of a project felt a permit was wrongly approved.

Before Wednesday's action, developers and regulators of desalination plants had no specific guidance for meeting federal and state clean water standards, complicating review of the projects, state water board spokesman George Kostyrko said.

Desalination has emerged as a promising technology in the face of a record dry spell now gripping California for a fourth straight year, depleting its reservoirs and aquifers and raising the costs of importing water from elsewhere.

Critics have cited ecological drawbacks, such as harm to marine life from intake pipes that suck water into the treatment systems and the concentrated brine discharge from the plants.

The newly approved plan sets specific brine salinity limits and rules for diffusing the discharge as it is pumped back into to the ocean.

It also requires seawater to be drawn into the plants through pipes that are sunk into beach wells or buried beneath the sea floor, where possible. Such subsurface intakes are viewed as more environmentally friendly.

The Western Hemisphere's biggest desalination plant, a $1 billion project under construction since 2012 in the coastal city of Carlsbad, California, is due to open in November.

It will deliver up to 50 million gallons (190 million liters) of water a day to San Diego County, enough to supply roughly 112,000 households, or about 10 percent of San Diego County's drinking water needs, according to Poseidon.

Approval is being sought for a final permit to begin construction of a second plant of similar size in Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles, next year.

About a dozen much smaller desalting plants have already been built along the coast, state water officials said.

On Tuesday, the state water board enacted California's first rules for mandatory statewide cutbacks in municipal water use . The emergency regulations, which require some communities to trim water consumption by as much as 36 percent, were approved unanimously just weeks after Democratic Governor Jerry Brown stood in a dry mountain meadow and ordered statewide rationing.

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