Citizen advocates and the California Coastal Commission question the environmental impact of desalination by multinational companies

By Laura Wides
Associated Press

Thursday, August 07, 2003 - LOS ANGELES -- Companies are lining up to help California squeeze salt from the sea in its quest for new water sources, but the agency that would approve the projects says tapping the ocean could pose serious problems for the state's coastline.

In a report to be presented to its board of directors Thursday, the California Coastal Commission warns that allowing desalination plants to proliferate could threaten marine life, spur development in sensitive habitats and turn what has long been considered a common good -- the ocean -- into a commodity. The commission's board of directors will review the report during its monthly meeting in Huntington Beach this week. A 60-day public comment period will follow.

The report says desalination poses risks to marine life because it can trap plants and small sea creatures while drawing in water, and it releases large amounts of salt back into the ocean. Environmentalists and consumer advocates called the commission report cutting-edge. "It's the first state agency to look at these issues very critically in California and one of the first in the U.S.," said Juliet Beck of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.

Some water companies say the report stems from an anti-privatization bias. "I think on the one hand, they are trying to get ahead of the issue, but they are making some real broad assumptions," said Billy Owens, senior vice president of U.S.-based Poseidon Resources, which wants to build two massive desalination plants in Southern California. Desalination is expected to provide only a tiny fraction of the state's water in the next decade. But the commission says that amount could increase, and it's not too soon to take a look at the issue. Commission spokeswoman Sarah Christie said it's a mistake to think desalination won't affect the ocean because it's so vast. "That's what we said about our forests," she said. "That's what we said about our fisheries ... and look what happened."

About a dozen desalination plants now operate along California's coast, with 20 more being considered. At least six of those are proposed by private companies or public-private partnerships. Most of the new projects remain in the planning stage and have yet to come before the commission.
Commission director Peter Douglas cited a $110 million desalination plant that recently opened in Tampa Bay, Fla., as an example of potential problems. The plant is the largest in the nation but has been shut down for weeks because its filters keep getting clogged. "In a case like that, if it doesn't work, tell me what happens?" Douglas said. "Who picks up the cost?"

The report does not take a stand for or against desalination. But it urges California to join other states to petition the U.S. government to ensure that international free-trade agreements do not infringe on the ability of states to protect coastal resources.

Poseidon's Owens said privatizing water is hardly new and that adding desalination plants to the supply chain is a logical next step.

Multinational corporations control water systems used by more than 40 million people in 1,000 communities across the country.

A spokesman for California American Water, which is seeking to build a plant on Monterey Peninsula, said he understood the commission's concerns but hoped it would look at each project individually. "There are private companies looking to build on a speculative basis, but our project was requested by the Public Utilities Commission," said Kevin Tilden, whose company is a subsidiary of the German firm RWE.