Private desalination plants worry environmentalists
Officials favor public agencies

Herald Staff Writer

If private water companies are permitted to operate desalination plants along the California coast, the state could lose all rights to regulate those plants, a group of public water officials and environmentalists was told Friday.

Once multinational water companies are allowed a foot in the desalination door, they will use international law to bypass state and local regulations, said Marc Del Piero, a former county supervisor and state Water Resources Control Board member who represents the publicly owned Pajaro-Sunny Mesa Community Services District.

Sunny-Mesa is one of nine entities with proposed desalination projects on the Monterey Bay, and is competing on some levels with the German-held California-American Water Co. for a plant in Moss Landing.

Del Piero's comments came during an environmental justice conference examining how water and desalination policy affects disadvantaged and minority communities.

A lawyer and recent candidate for Monterey County Superior Court, Del Piero said state water regulations would be trumped by international agreements the United States has executed in the last three to four years "to facilitate trade and business," including water delivery.

"Federal law will pre-empt states from attempting to do something to interfere with something the president of the United States has done in terms of a treaty with another country," said Del Piero. "If you grant a (desalination) permit to someone other than a public agency, the opportunity for a complete circumvention of our regulatory process is there."

Del Piero said it was imperative to get the Legislature to enact comprehensive policy regarding desalination plants, including a requirement they be operated by public agencies.

Cal-Am did not have a representative present at the conference, which was sponsored by Public Officials for Water and Environmental Reform (POWER) as an alternative to the Association of California Water Agencies conference held this week at the Monterey Conference Center, according to POWER spokesman Conner Everts.

That conference was attended by 2,000 water officials from 400 agencies that deliver 90 percent of the water in California. Bill Jones, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, delivered the keynote address to the conference, which also explored the topics of perchlorate contamination in drinking water and a move to make private water companies, such as Cal-Am, eligible for grant funds under Proposition 50.

While Del Piero did not refer to Cal-Am in his presentation, it was clear he was referring to the company that has entered into an agreement with the Monterey County Board of Supervisors to pursue a desalination project at Moss Landing.

Steve Leonard, Cal-Am director, did not respond Friday afternoon to a call seeking response to Del Piero's comments.

Though a staunch Republican, Del Piero appeared to be preaching to the choir in the largely environmentalist audience at Friday's conference, held at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Speakers from the California Coastal Protection Network, Save Our Shores, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the California Coastal Commission all said it was critical for California to develop a comprehensive approach addressing the cumulative impacts of desalination given the sudden explosion in the number of proposals in the state.

There are currently 26 proposals in the state, many by private water companies.

Speakers expressed concerns about the effects of desalination on marine life and ocean water quality, its potential inducement for growth and the huge amount of energy it takes to operate a plant.

Cautioning that each proposal should be evaluated individually, they also acknowledged potential benefits of the process. Chief among the benefits cited was desalination's ability to reduce diversions of water from the state's creeks and rivers.

The challenge, said Jared Huffman of the Marin Municipal District, is to freeze that water savings for conservation.

Susan Jordan of the Coastal Protection Network, who is also a Santa Barbara County planning commissioner, said water created through desalination should be used to create affordable housing and to "address the disproportionate effects of water problems on disadvantaged communities."

Earlier in the morning Erica Padilla of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) told the audience of the plight of the residents of Chualar, whose water supply was found to be tainted with nitrates in 1996. The county was forced to truck water into the community and eventually sold the water system to Cal-Am.

Jordan also criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's policy that public versus private ownership shouldn't affect the Coastal Commission's decisions on approving desalination projects. Commission staff has proposed only public ownership.

"I firmly believe any forays should be by the public and for the public only," Jordan said. "I believe privatization of the ocean, a public trust resource, represents one of the most serious threats to our social fabric."

Huffman, whose Marin district is planning a desalination project to be used only in drought years, said private companies would be motivated to operate the plants at all time to maximize profits, despite the massive amounts of energy that would consume.

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Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 646-4355 or vhennessey@