Desperate measures?

Pub date September 1, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

A proposal to open the first desalination plant on the San Francisco Bay inched forward Aug. 18 when the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) board voted 4-0 to build a facility that would convert 5 million gallons of seawater a day into fresh drinking water.

It’s the latest chapter in a saga that has pit environmentalists, who see the plant as too energy intensive, against business and development interests, which fear the district is going to run out of water.

The plant, which is planned for a seven-acre shoreline plot in San Rafael and could be up and running by 2014, would cost an estimated $105 million to build and another $3 million to $4 million a year to operate. MMWD says it will fund the project using bonds and a $3 to $5 increase in monthly water bills.

MMWD Board President David Behar and directors Larry Russell, Cynthia Koehler, and Jack Gibson also approved $400,000 to cover permits and design construction of the new facility

The Aug. 18 vote took place with the five-member MMWD board short a director (former Board President Alex Forman died July 9). And it came after hours of public comment, with opponents arguing that desalination is too expensive, detrimental to marine life, and will release climate-changing gases.

"When you look at the bigger picture, it makes no sense," said Mark Schlosberg, California Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

In June, Food & Water Watch’s James Frye released a report titled "Sustaining Our Water Future," which argues that MMWD could meet its future water needs by intensifying conservation measures and improving reservoir operations. Frye’s report also indicated that the water district overestimated its expected water shortfall because it based its calculations on high-use years.

But MMWD’s general manager Paul Helliker contends the report was not realistic. "They are talking about everyone, business and homeowners, cutting landscape water use by 40 percent. That’s a phenomenal cut," Helliker told the Marin Independent Journal at the time.

Others see desalination as a drought-proof way to satisfy projected population and economic growth.

"We’re concerned about bringing supply and demand into balance," Hal Brown, president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, said during public comment.

"Under a severe drought, the economy will be impacted tremendously," said Bill Scott, business manager of the Marin Building Trades Council.

When the board ultimately voted to green-light the next steps in the desalination plant building process, they noted that they will explore the use of alternative renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, wave/tidal, or landfill gas, to power the plant. They also pointed out that when the next drought hits, Marin won’t be able to build emergency pipelines and negotiate for more water from the Russian River, which is what the county did during previous droughts.

Today, Marin County relies on seven small local reservoirs. The district contends that the new facility will be insurance against longer dry spells, which are anticipated due to global warming.

"This has been hard," Board member Cynthia Koehler acknowledged, addressing the riled-up crowd and noting that the district still has "a number of off-ramps."

The MMWD is already on the vanguard of conservation statewide, Koehler noted, observing that no water district achieves its conservation goals. "So I don’t think six years is rushing," he said.

"We will not build a desalination plant without the need," MMWD director Larry Russell told the crowd. "We are not fast-tracking this. But if a drought comes, we will."

"I’d be lying if I said I have no concerns about de-sal, starting with the energy," MMWD director Jack Gibson told the agitated crowd. "So, why am I not there with you? I view it as being prepared."

Recalling how attitudes changed overnight when the drought hit in 1976 and 1977, Gibson added, "If we have a serious water crisis, people are going to be clamoring for water. My concern is that the Russian River, as a fish habitat, will be gone."

With four of five seats up for election in November 2010 election, the composition of the board could change dramatically before the desalination plant’s fate is sealed.