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Proposed desalination plant could harm ocean environment, report says

Seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach could significantly harm coastal waters unless major changes are made, panel says.

November 11, 2013|By Bettina Boxall

A proposed seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach could significantly harm parts of the Southern California ocean environment unless substantial changes are made in its design and operation, according to the staff of the state Coastal Commission.

A staff report prepared for this week's commission vote on the project highlights the potential downside of large-scale efforts to turn the salty water of the Pacific Ocean into drinking supplies for coastal California.

"There are ways to do desal in a fairly environmentally benign way," said Tom Luster, an environmental scientist with the commission. "This one will have some fairly significant adverse effects."

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Poseidon Resources, a small, privately held company based in Stamford, Conn., first proposed the Huntington Beach desalter, and a similar one now under construction in Carlsbad in San Diego County, in 1998. Both would be the largest seawater-to-drinking-water operations in the country, each producing enough purified water every year to supply roughly 100,000 households.

Poseidon intended to avoid the expense and environmental problems of building and operating ocean intake and discharge systems by locating its facilities next to power stations and tapping into the huge volumes of seawater used to cool the generating equipment.

But that strategy ran into hurdles in 2010 when the State Water Resources Control Board directed most coastal generating stations to phase out seawater cooling, which every year kills massive amounts of plankton at the bottom of the marine food web along with billions of fish eggs and larvae.

When the AES Huntington Beach Generating Station on Pacific Coast Highway switches to a different cooling system within the next five years, Poseidon's proposed plant would continue using the power operation's offshore outfall and open ocean intake pipe, pulling in about 127 million gallons of coastal water every day.

The commission staff estimates that would annually suck in more than 80 million fish larvae, eggs and invertebrates along 100 miles of the Southern California coast, including a number of Marine Protected Areas.

Poseidon could largely avoid such harm, the staff says, by constructing intakes, called infiltration galleries, just below the ocean floor that imperceptibly draw seawater through a few feet of sand into perforated pipes, keeping out the tiny organisms that form the foundation of marine life.

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