California considers rules for making seawater drinkable amid drought

Reuters News
Posted: May 06, 2015 1:51 PM

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Water regulators in drought-stricken California on Wednesday were set to adopt new rules for desalination plants designed to make seawater drinkable in the latest effort to shore up water supplies as dry conditions stretch into a fourth year.

The desalination rules, which put some decisions for such plants in the hands of statewide regulators rather than local water boards, come a day after the state demanded sweeping cutbacks in water use by cities and towns.

The desalination plan, expected to be enacted by the State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday, would set up a uniform permitting process for plants built to reclaim seawater, and also limit the amount of salt that the facilities would be allowed to release back into the sea.

California's drought has thrust seawater desalination into the spotlight as San Diego County, Santa Barbara and other cities push ahead with treatment plants that will soon turn the Pacific Ocean into a source of drinking water.

The biggest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, a $1 billion project under construction since 2012 on a coastal lagoon in the California city of Carlsbad, is due to open in November. It will deliver up to 50 million gallons of water a day to San Diego County.

That is enough to supply roughly 112,000 households, or about 10 percent of the county's drinking water needs, according to Poseidon Resources, the Connecticut-based company behind the facility.

Poseidon has a second seawater desalting project of similar size under development in Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles, and is seeking a final permit to begin construction next year.

Meanwhile, the city of Santa Barbara is taking steps to modernize and reactivate a much smaller $34 million desalination plant built during an earlier drought but moth-balled after a trial run in 1992, when that water crisis abated.

On Tuesday, the Water Resources Control Board enacted California's first rules for mandatory statewide cutbacks in water use. The emergency regulations, which require some communities to trim water use 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.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Bill Trott)