Governor's office joins fray, backs desalination

March 12, 2004

SACRAMENTO Putting the Coastal Commission on notice, the Schwarzenegger administration made it clear yesterday that it fully supports building desalination projects along California's shoreline.

The move injected the Schwarzenegger administration into what has been a simmering debate over the commission's reach in permitting plants to turn ocean water into drinking water.

California Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman said the administration entered the fray following reports that Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas told members of Congress this week that the agency opposes desalination plants on the coast.

"Anecdotally, we understand that he's making it known that the Coastal Commission generally is going to oppose in some way . . . desalination," Chrisman said.

Quickly qualifying his remarks, Chrisman added: "There are a lot of issues and I may be overstating that."

Douglas said someone apparently misconstrued his conversations and exaggerated the commission's concerns.

"The Coastal Commission has approved a variety of desalination plants," he said. "What I'm saying is each of them raises environmental issues. We have to evaluate those. If done right, if sited at the right place, that's fine."

Douglas said he suspects private water agencies interested in securing permits with few constraints were engaged in backdoor communications with the administration.

"They're spreading misinformation to discredit me or to push their position to promote their industry," he said.

At the center of the controversy is a draft report that raises questions about the environmental effects of tapping the sea. Commissioners are expected to continue reviewing the 56-page policy paper when they meet in Monterey next week.

The commission has questioned the wisdom of turning over a valuable public resource to private conglomerates. Commissioners also worry that the state would have to rescue cities or homeowners relying on desalted water if a private water provider bails out for financial reasons.

"This is a public resource that's being privatized," said Sara Wan, a commissioner from Malibu. But the commission has no intention of adopting a blanket policy to bar desalination development along the coast, she said.

Private water companies also are pushing Congress to provide subsidies for desalination, and are mounting a campaign in Sacramento to convince lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that they should receive public bond money for their projects.

The San Diego County Water Authority, which earlier sought a joint venture with a private desalination company, questioned at the time whether the commission was intruding into local affairs.

"The report suggests a desire by the Coastal Commission to expand its review beyond legitimate issues of effects of such projects on California's coastal resources," Daniel Hentschke, the water authority's general counsel, said in a letter to the commission.

Hentschke said the commission should leave "considerations such as economic, growth inducement, privatization and other similar issues to the sound discretion of (other) public agencies."

As costs continue to fall, a thirsty California has begun to pump more money and time into making desalination an everyday reality. The Coastal Commission estimates that at least 18 projects are in the planning stages. If built, 400,000 households could be showering and cooking with water piped from the Pacific Ocean.

But trouble lurks. In San Diego, the water authority recently severed ties with Poseidon Resources, a Connecticut-based company that wants to build a plant next to the Encino Power Station in Carlsbad.

Chrisman said yesterday that his comments should not be read as a free pass to developers.

Schwarzenegger, who will appoint four of the 12 positions on the commission, backs the panel's authority to issue permits for desalination plants, Chrisman said.

"Of course. That's part of their responsibility," he said.

Just as important, however, is the promise that desalination holds, Chrisman said.

"From our perspective, desalination is a big part of our water supply needs here in California," he said. "We need to do everything we can to push that technology."